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Review #3259: Alcatraz 1.4: “Cal Sweeney”

Posted on the 01 February 2012 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: J. M.

It seems somewhat ironic, that after four rollercoaster episodes that varied wildly in quality, the show is very predictable. When the focus is on the criminals and flashbacks, the story is tightly focused on building not just the characters but the character of Alcatraz and the things that the prison did to its inmates. The return of the 63s and their simultaneous adaptation and dislocation is intriguing to watch. Yet despite the fact that this episode focused almost solely on its strengths, it was able to do so by flying past some significant plot holes and did so without changing the dynamics of the show, leaving this episode as likely the best Alcatraz can get without significant alterations to the basic premises of the show.

Review #3259: Alcatraz 1.4: “Cal Sweeney”

The flashbacks are simply the best part of Alcatraz, containing the most compelling and magnetic characters in the pair of Edwin James and EB Tiller. Those two have the most remarkable onscreen presence, helped by the genuine feeling that these characters are of the past, rather than simple projections of sneering archetypes into the past. They act, behave, speak, and comport in a fundamentally believable manner, yet sufficiently different that they represent the past.They run the prison as their own private fiefdom, but James in particular is not without his principles, however questionable. The whole enterprise though is cloaked in a very real sense of mystery that there is something going on behind the scenes that the viewer isn’t privy to.

The criminals also have that same mystery. They have very compelling stories and modus operandi, playing on the assumed familiarity with serial killers and psychopaths from other shows like Criminal Minds. Yet rather than plumb the depths of the killers, for the most part the writers leave them unexplained. Watching the coldly rational Sweeney ply the victim of his theft for details of the meaning of the necklace he stole and the desperation as his façade crumbled was extraordinarily compelling. His confusion about his second theft despite his driven nature heightens the sense that he and his fellow inmates have been manipulated by some unseen force.

But upon closer inspection, many of the mytharc elements collapse under close inspection: why would the group that sent the 63s back need the keys? Why would they bother sending back the 63s in the first place? What advantage does this mysterious group achieve? There isn’t a rational explanation, and the writers haven’t seen to even provide the vaguest framework. Hauser seems to understand how the inmates disappeared and who made them disappear, but in the dark as to what purpose they were taken and their purpose upon return, which is horrifically inconsistent.

The nature of his organization is totally up in the air. Is it a secret division of the FBI, of which he is nominally apart of? Or is something that he has squirreled away of his own initiative, against the desires of his bosses? There is a great deal of potential that just seems to be hand waved away by the character archetype. The revelation of the door also makes little to no sense. If the keys are that important, why not simply blow the door open? There are simply too many questions and not enough context. The production troubles really show their face here, and it seems pretty clear that the erratic nature of the main mystery almost certainly because of this.

Madsen and Soto are so bland as to warrant little comment. Soto makes a giant leap in logic, with the flimsiest of reasons. The writers seem content to write him as a grossly simplified Hurley, and I get the sense that Jorge Garcia hoped that this role would keep him from getting typecast, but it appears that is not the case. Madsen has also been maddeningly inconsistent. In the pilot, she stole evidence to try and understand what she was up against. She broke into secret archives in Alcatraz, and when confronted by Hauser, she simply rolls over. She’s not affected by the discovery that the story that she based her self-image on and that her father figure lied to her about her upbringing. It’s wildly unpredictable and terrible writing.

Ultimately, I can’t foresee Alcatraz overcoming the basic structural flaws. This episode was a lot of fun to watch, and was pretty engrossing. But one you start to think too hard about some of the finer points, it falls apart. The show has clearly struggled because of the tempestuous behind-the-scenes drama, but no one has done it any favors.

Rating: 7/10


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