A Few TV Thoughts

Lessons from Old TV: Alcatraz

Lesson #5: Story and High Expectations

Television as a writing medium intrigues me. I love the potential to delve into a character’s life and explore in detail different themes and situations on an episode by episode basis. In order to teach myself about writing for television I completed a project during the 2011-2012 television season to further those efforts. I tried all of the pilots of any show that I could possibly be interested in. Let me tell you, it was a lot of television. There were eight of these shows that made my cut but didn’t score with the networks. In this series I’ll explore why I felt they had potential yet explain the pitfall that caused the show to stumble and die.

Alcatraz - Header

I wasn’t looking for a new Lost when I started watching Alcatraz. Sam Neill has always been a draw and I wasn’t disappointed in his role in this television show either. I did get caught up in the whole mystery of the time jump and exploring each of the missing inmates’ or guards’ backgrounds through a present case. Emerson’s love affair with Dr. Lucy Banerjee was very compelling and when she got hurt even though I couldn’t care-a-less I hurt for him.

Alcatraz - DoctorI loved how they used the doctor as a new age thinker to explore the past prison life of the inmates. Loved the male doctor who always did what he was told whether by the warden or Emerson, yet knew next to nothing about what was really going on. (We needed more characters like this who changed every time something new was revealed!) The connection to Madsen’s grandfather and the odd role he played in recruiting different inmates was intriguing and I wanted to know more about the past. The uncle who raised Madsen also had a connection to Alcatraz and tried to protect her. Even Jorge Garcia as the consultant Soto became more than just the plot device he started life as. There were two problems though.

#1 Sarah Jones as Detective Rebecca Madsen. Hate her. Hate her. Hate her. I don’t use hate lightly either. She made you grit your teeth each and every time she was on-screen. When her partner is murdered you couldn’t care less. She didn’t work well with the others in the cast either. There was no sense of relationship with them at different depths, connectiveness or discord. As the protagonist her character was the most essential to get right, preferably someone with chemistry and emotional tension with each of the other essential characters.

Alcatraz - Madsen

#2 The mystery behind the events so expertly set up was shallow. There just wasn’t much to it and what there was, was pretty anti-climatic. A glimpse of an element of the mystery should have intrigued us more than the initial setup did. When something is actually revealed we should feel like we want more, not shaking our heads and rolling our eyes or even worse puzzled because it plain doesn’t make sense.

It wasn’t shocking to me to find out this show was cancelled due to its issues. The connection to the popular show Lost ran audience expectations high. The writing was sound, the cast excellent with a great premise. A poor production choice and an underwhelming story paired with lofty promises killed the show. This illustrates more than any other lesson how essential good story is to the popularity of a television show. A good story will overcome any other flaw for any medium. ( I will miss Sam Neill on television though – networks, snatch his up!)

FOX cancelled Alcatraz due to the audience’s high expectations being dashed by poor story.
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