Because it became too expensive to house nearly 250 criminals on a rock in the middle of the ocean, Alcatraz officially shut down in 1963... or did it? And after it shut down, all of the inmates were transferred to other prisons... or were they?
In the new J.J. Abrams-produced supernatural thriller Alcatraz, which premiered in back-to-back episodes last night on Fox, we quickly learned the answer to both questions: Fuck no.
Instead it's old-timey inmate serial-killer Pokemon: Gotta catch 'em all!
The show opens with two bewildered guards entering an abandoned cellblock on the day the prison closed, uncertain of the whereabouts of its occupants. In fact, for all practical purposes, the inmates and the guards responsible for their transfer -- 193 people total -- have vanished. These guys didn't even pause to grab a shiv or the homemade telescope one prisoner used to gaze longingly at the city and determine which building would make the best sniper tower. They're just gone.
Fast-forward to 2012. Sexy, young homicide detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) finds a fingerprint belonging to one of the missing inmates, Jack Sylvane (Jeffery Pierce), in the home of a former Alcatraz guard who has been murdered (and who, even for a prison guard, was kind of a dick about stuff). Despite being told to back off the case by secretive FBI agent Emerson Houser (Sam Neill, for once unmolested by dinosaurs), that incorrigible Madsen googles Sylvane anyway and discovers that he was pronounced dead in 1963.
But, wait, then. How did his fingerprint end up at a modern-day crime scene?
To find out whodunit, Madsen teams up with "Doc" Soto (Jorge Garcia), a nerdy scholar who has written four books on Alcatraz and is just happy an attractive woman is talking to him. They visit the island and discover that Hauser has been waiting for them in the top-secret crime-stopping lair he built beneath the prison. Hauser asks them to join his team and reveals that not only is Sylvane still alive, but at age 84, he still looks the same as he did in his 30s.
And, oh yes, the other missing inmates are coming back, too, though no one knows where they have been for half a century or why none of them have aged. Hauser has been waiting his whole life for them to return, and we partially learn why: He was one of the two guards who first discovered they were missing.
Meanwhile, Sylvane is walking around San Francisco slaughtering people, even though he originally landed in Alcatraz for the Jean Valjean-esque crime of stealing food from the grocery store to feed his family. Slightly less morally ambiguous are the crimes of the inmate who reemerges in the second episode, rogue sniper Ernest Cobb (Joe Egender), who became a serial killer because his mother didn't love him enough.
Very few of the pieces thrown down in the first two episodes make sense, and yet, in what we're told is typical J.J. Abrams style, they're given enough screen time to make us suspect they're important: Sylvane shoots a man to get the large, silver key stored in his safe; Cobb compulsively chants "47 slats in a picket fence" while he's mowing down his victims; Madsen's grandfather, among the missing inmates who have already returned, is the man who killed her former partner, something Hauser likely knows. And at the end of each episode, as the former inmates are hauled back to a revamped Alcatraz, Hauser seems a bit more excited than he should.
We also hope Soto gets over his apprehension about seeing dead bodies, because he's probably as close as anyone can get to being an Alcatraz nerd, and we want him to geek out hardcore over hunting these criminals the way other people might over their favorite quarterback or Jesus.
But perhaps most importantly, how do men in their 80s still look 30, and can we have what they're having? If we're offered a reasonable excuse to suspend our disbelief -- for example, "OMG, zombies!" probably won't cut it -- we'd like to stick around and find out.