You know what I find interesting? That a serialized drama with a huge story to tell and only a 13-episode first season to tell it in could completely skip an episode and not miss a beat in season-long arcs. With the big stock-car rodeo and fireball bonanza last Monday pushing Alcatraz back a week, Fox decided to skip over Episode 8, "Clarence Montgomery," and stick with its scheduled back-to-back duo of "The Ames Brothers" and "Sonny Burnett." And you know what? Alcatraz's jigsaw puzzle plot (that's a generous term for questionable storytelling) didn't suffer for it, at least I didn't see anything missing.
So what does that say about a show–one as heavily serialized as Alcatraz–when it can air its episodes out of order without penalty? Either "Clarence Montgomery" is 44 minutes of "we had plenty of room leftover" filler or the reveals in each episode are so disconnected from each other that it doesn't matter what order you tell them in. Alcatraz is struggling with that type of plotting, as evidenced by last night's double dip of The Rock. Both gave a teensy-tiny bit of foresight into the overall mysteries of the series, but the reveals and raised questions weren't related from episode to episode, turning what should be momentum gainers into tangential details that we have to keep track of if we have the will to do so. Is Warden James still alive? What's behind the door that the keys control? Why is Tommy Madsen perving out on his grand-daughter? Gold? Seriously, WTF gold? That's Alcatraz for ya. These scattered ideas probably look great on index cards on a corkboard in the writers room, but from where I'm standing it's just a bunch of random details and not a story at all. Sit down and spout off everything we've learned about the overall story so far. You'll sound like a an ADD-afflicted six-year old reciting a movie review. "There are these prisoners! And they return, and they have magic blood. And there's a mysterious door! And one guy likes comics!"
Normally I watch Alcatraz, write it up, and chloroform myself to scrub my brain free of any memories of having watched the program. But with two episodes back-to-back and my Costco supply of knock-out juice running low, there was no other option but to take them both in and figure a few things out.
First, I liked "The Ames Brothers" a heck of a lot more than I did "Sonny Burnett." "The Ames Brothers" broke the mold of typical Alcatraz episodes, which run on this very standard procedural beat: inmate returns, goes nutso on the real world, Rebecca gets captured, then Rebecca elbows inmate in gut/Rebecca crashes car/Emerson shoots him just in time. Instead, Rebecca and Soto were bottled up in Alcatraz on a dark and stormy night and the inmates returned with business to finish on the island, not in San Francisco.
The whole episode had a pulp-ish '20s vibe to it, with the Ames Brothers searching for a hidden cache of Civil War gold bricks hidden in a secret chamber in the basement of Alcatraz. That's a stupid storyline, but it actually worked. By keeping things contained to the island in the present and the past, it became a much more cohesive experience and turned the prison into a wonderland of mystery instead of a stopover for inmates on their way to plant landmines in San Francisco.
Everything seemed to be more energized in "The Ames Brothers." Even Rebecca stopped being such an Eeyore and came out of her shell a bit. She cracked a few legitimate jokes early on! And the action was brutal. Soto got his f'ing face kicked in! A dude got his little finger cut off by a meat saw! And it had an oaf caving in the brains of Nerd Beard, one of Hauser's geek squad, with bolt cutters. Yes, please! It was campy with lots of homage to the old adventure stories your grandpappy listened to on his gigantic radio, making it the first time Alcatraz had a distinctive voice–even if that voice was hokey–instead of a chorus of others'. If the series were more like this, I'd be a lot happier.
"Sonny Burnett" was much more traditional for the series, and indicative of what makes Alcatraz such a chore to watch, even with my boy Theo Rossi from Sons of Anarchy in a major role. Essentially, episodes like this try to be three episodes in one: Taaaaales of '60s Alcatraz via flashback, a present-day procedural case that's a trip from Point A to Point B, and a serialized mystery with sci-fi elements. That's just too much to try and get across in 44 minutes. Instead of propping the stories up with each other, the storytelling becomes crowded and diminishes them all. "The Ames Brothers" was at least able to put everything under the same umbrella, so to speak, and it was entirely watchable. Following "The Ames Brothers," which played out like a confession by the writers that the show was becoming stale and things needed to be shaken up a bit, "Sonny Burnett" was just boring and back to playing it safe.
So what tidbits about the overall story did we learn? The prisoners (well, most of them) have super healing blood, which protect them from things like dying. It's probably related to Tommy's blood, which Dr. Beauregard drained like a Capri Sun back in the '60s. Were the prisoners injected with Tommy's blood back in the day, or after they time-jumped? Or are they all just a bunch of clones with Tommy's super-juice running through their veins? Did Tommy Madsen time jump or is he somehow magical and is staying the same age?
There's also the question of whether Warden James is actually alive or not. In the pilot, we're flat-out told he's dead, but wouldn't that be just like Alcatraz to pull a "Gotcha! We were just joking, he's alive and running the whole business now"? If James is actually alive in present day, I'll let out a completely defeated sigh, because misleading information is the product of lazy television.
Alcatraz returns next week with Episode 8 in what should be Episode 11's slot, so we'll see if there's anything amiss or if it feels curiously in place.
– Soto telling his buddy that he'll tell Rebecca that his friend owns Twilight on Blu-ray: Funny or Ugh?
– There's no way I can write a story about an episode featuring Frank Whaley as a guest star and not link to a YouTube video of a young Jennifer Connelley riding a coin-operated toy horse in a tank top from Whaley's movie Career Opportunities.
– Boy, the cops are really bad shots in this show, aren't they?
– How long is Lucy going to be in a coma because this has gone on too long and I think it's time to pull the plug.
– How did Whaley's character convince the other guards to let him, solo, take two prisoners to the Hole?
– Is two hours of Alcatraz more than any human being should be subjected to in one night?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom