We've always liked Jorge Garcia on Lost, but he's really stretching his acting muscles on his new show, Alcatraz. And somehow he's managing to act rings around not just Sarah Jones but Sam Neill too. Actually there are two things to love about Alcatraz, especially based on last night's episode — Garcia's performance, and the moments of extreme creepy weirdness.
Last night's episode was sort of hard to figure out. I mean, the theme was clearly "arrested development" — Emerson Hauser even tells us so at the end of the episode. And we're supposed to be contrasting Dr. Diego Soto's overgrown man-boy syndrome with the serial killer who still acts like a demented kid and forces his child victims to go fishing and eat pie and watch movies and play checkers. Because they're both the same, except that Diego Soto is a well-adjusted man-child.
There's only one problem with this: Diego Soto (Garcia) is the only person who acts like an adult in the entire episode. Emerson Hauser, the guy who dares to give Soto a lecture about how he wants "the man, not the boy," spends most of the episode being a petulant brat because his friend got shot. I get that he's upset, but he comes across as sulky rather than pissed off or resolute. And meanwhile, Det. Rebecca Madsden. never quite seems to be able to take anything seriously for very long, even when a kid is about to be killed. She always seems to be trying to hold back a smirk.
Exhibit A is this scene, where Jorge Garcia is acting his little heart out, even with weak lines like calling Hauser "Dr. Strangelove." And meanwhile, Sam Neill doesn't seem to know what to do with the material — his character has just called off the police search for the serial killer guy, but is it because he wants to keep the Alcatraz thing secret, or because he's just upset over Lucy getting shot? And then Sarah Jones walks into the scene and just projects this weird sitcom energy as she tries to seem upset over them consigning a kid to death. It's a weird scene, tonally.
So yeah, they're searching for Kit Nelson, a creepy serial killer who apparently murdered his own 11-year-old brother and three other kids back in the 1940s and 1950s. And now he's back, but whoever brought him back hasn't bothered to have him do any chores, like the one Jack Sylvane did in the first episode. (Someone is giving Nelson money and enough knowledge to understand about cellphones, but not asking anything in return. Apparently.) Anyway, Kit Nelson kidnaps another kid, and Diego Soto is the only one who figures out what's happening, and the only one who figures out a way to track Nelson down — twice, even. Meanwhile, Emerson Hauser and Rebecca Madsden stand around feeling so much more mature than Diego Soto. Because he likes comic books. Or something. Just run with it.
The episode actually makes a half-hearted effort to convince us that Soto is kind of a loser, because early on we see him drawing a really terrible-looking comic book of his experiences in episode two, particularly the moment when Lucy got shot. His art style seems to owe a lot to Dave Gibbons, actually. And apparently his life is a 16-year-old boy's wet dream.
But anyway, Garcia pretty much steals the episode, with his genuine moral outrage at this child being taken shining through. The bit where he tells the kidnapped child to "stay strong" is great, and so is the scene in the diner when he's found the kidnapper but has no idea how to slow him down. And so is the scene up top, where he bonds with the kid over having been kidnapped as well — although I kind of wish they'd left that part out, since it ties things up too neatly. (And will probably never be mentioned again, unless it's the first rung in a ladder leading down into a deep mystery. Like the guy who kidnapped Young Diego was an Alcatraz prisoner or something.)
So yeah — all in all, it was a pretty standard police procedural, without much attempt to make use of the cultureshock of a man from 1963 finding his way in 2012. Except that Jorge Garcia really rocked this episode.
Meanwhile, the other thing this show is doing astonishingly well is insane creepiness. Once again, all the flashback scenes are creepy as fuck — even if it often seems to be creepiness for its own sake. Kit Nelson gets his face smashed so hard by the other inmates, he looks like a movie monster, and his face is so pale and so dramatically made up, he has a weird androgynous clown thing going on, in all those sepiatone flashback scenes. Kit Nelson's dad shows up to tell Kit that his mom died, and to demand the truth about Kit's brother. Kit denies any role in his brother's death, so the warden helpfully locks him in the hole and keeps lighting matches, Batman-style, to interrogate him until he breaks.
Alcatraz reaches right past the banality of evil, to get to the insanity of good. Or something. All of the authority figures are sadistic and sardonic. There are a lot of raised eyebrows and mocking tones on this show, and I guess we're supposed to think Emerson Hauser only really makes sense in that world, despite the fact that he was only 18 back then.
I am not sure what we gain from seeing psychopaths get tortured every week, but it's certainly fascinating. (In the cases of Kit Nelson and Ernest Cobb, it's not like anyone would ever have believed in their chances of rehabilitation, so showing us that prison did the opposite of rehabilitating them is upsetting but not much of an object lesson. Only Jack Sylvane has shown us a guy who could have been redeemed, thus far.)
So yeah, creepiness. Once again, we get another weird scene in the infirmary, with blood-drawing, and Rebecca's grandpa talking in a highly affected manner about the sinister things going on around here. And this time, it's made clear that the Dr. Beauregard who was mentioned to Jack Sylvane last week really is the doctor from the early 1960s, somehow miraculously preserved. All of which leads to a scene (at left) in which Dr. Beauregard is so excited to get a dead body, he dances to some classic R&B.
For now, at least, Alcatraz is a hit — although when CBS stops having Monday night reruns, that may change. But in any case, it's clear that this show does have some stuff going for it, and the persistent creepy weirdness is becoming sort of addictive. What's not clear is what sort of show this wants to be: a cozy police procedural where a group of cute people track down killers every week? A dark, weird exploration of sadistic authority? A Lost-style mystery show? I guess it wants to be all three. But last night, there were some tonal shifts, and a few tone-deaf moments, that revealed a show that still needs a bit of a shakeup.