Alcatraz: Back-to-Back Sentences

Alcatraz S01E09: "The Ames Brothers" / S01E10: "Sonny Burnett"

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.


PRISON SENTENCES
– 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

Comments (40)
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I guess I was the only one who was disappointed/flabbergasted to find out it really was just gold in that room and not another (I guess this really should just be "a" since it's not like they've given out any) piece of the mystery.
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They did not air episode that was bumped by Daytona, instead showed 2 that nobody expected back to back and no idea who was who, but hey neither were reruns. They could have aired the bumped shows Last Friday instead of more Ramsay back 2 back Kitchen reruns. Grimm was their only competition that night. Fox is lazy.
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I don't know if I would call this show heavily serialized. It's way too procedural, and that makes you end up not caring what happens. Only like 30 seconds in the end of each show has something to do with the overall story arc, so meh
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I'm starting to warm to Alcatraz(little bit). It's not the best show around. I agree there is to much going on. The keys, it was until after I watched the episode I remembered they were a big deal at the beginning of the season. you never build up your mystery if it takes so long that you can't even remember what the mystery is. The gold stash was a nice thouch
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i love this show !! the ames brothers was a great episode !!
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I agree with "The Ames Brothers" being good. As for "Sonny Burnett," the only bits I liked were the flashbacks. The whole "present" thing was weak.



Really, I am disappointed with the show. We're getting all of this weirdness thrown at us, which is good, but then it's never resolved or mentioned again except in passing.



I guess that's kind of like Lost; it took a WHILE for us to get ANY answers. The same with Fringe; we really didn't know much about what was going on for quite a while.



But those 2 shows were at least interesting when they were teasing us with little info. Alcatraz? Not so much
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It's strange that this far into the show there seem to be episodes where none of the greater mysteries are addressed at all. It's like the series thinks it's doing stand-alones vs serial episodes but doesn't know they're all the same.



I couldn't help noticing in Sonny that although the flashback scenes were interesting they really had nothing to do with the present arc, besides revealing the money was stolen.



As to the cops being bad shots, that jumped out at me when Hauser couldn't hit the bald Ames when he was stationary.



The coma plotline is embarrasing! Here I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt and thinking maybe there's a point to revealing Lucy through the flashbacks but there's nothing and they're not going to find an interesting way to bring her back, she'll probably just wake up randomly a long time from now.



It's almost certain that the Warden is alive, and when I think about it, I don't think we were told he was dead by anyone 'in the know' so they probably won't even see it as a retcon.
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Ehhh, I think I'm gonna stop watching Alcatraz now.



I'm still interested in the overall mystery and the premise of the show because both are still generally fun and creative. But I'm getting really bored of having to constantly eat dog crap just in the hopes of finding a strawberry at the end of it all.



The writers have made everything except the mystery itself a bore, so I really don't have any incentive of watching these episodes anymore. I may as well skip the rest of the season and just watch the season finale.
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I have seen 8, 9 and 10 so what will next weeks be 8 again or 11!
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Fox thinks it fans are stupid, but only the Idol followers get respect and I bet the judges plane tickets plus fuel cost more than 1 Terra Nova episode. Alcatraz fans are not dumb nor are Fringe, TN, Touch etc. Which keeps moving up a week and still on Thursday . Fox pretty much killed that one. I don't care if Bones tanks now, they stole my Monday spot at 7. Now I must scrambled the remote hunting for a different show until 8. Where is House?
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"The Ames Brothers" episode was good, but not "Sonny Burnett".
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I agree with your take on all of this, more or less. Perhaps because of what you said about The Ames Brothers being focused ONLY on Alcatraz (ie. not in San Francisco besides) for the first time since the show premiered I felt myself seriously interested in the back-story and the drama occurring in the PAST Alcatraz. It even gave you a sense that it was occurring at the same time in some parts -- and that could be part of the cohesion you speak of. A LOT better jumping back and forth this time out.



Yeah, Sonny Burnett didn't seem to do anything real in terms of progressing the show, though in that episode we DID learn a wee bit about what the bigger picture is, and the big mystery.
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Highly serialized? What makes it highly serialized? The pedigree of the creator and producer? This show is about as highly serialized as the first season of Supernatural, which is to say that it's not highly serialized at all. There are hints at a bigger picture but it's still very much in the "monster of the week" vein that Supernatural, The X-Files, Fringe and Millennium utilized in the early going. The only difference is that going into Alcatraz we knew that there was going to be a bigger picture story, so it can be frustrating that they're not getting to it more quickly.
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your questions....



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.



i watched lost, jj abrams crown jewel of work imo. also watch fringe and watched flash forward(flash forward wasnt as good as the rest but was still well written imo by jj abrams). jj abrams 3 other shows lost, fringe, alcatraz show he reveals some answers by asking more questions.



alcatraz has shown to be a very good show. hoping it gets 22-25 episodes for its 2nd season.
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Really, really want to like this show, but it's not doing it for me.
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I would say that "heavily serialized" is an exaggeration. I'm thinking "barely serialized" fits better. I suspect you could see the entire season-long arc by watching the last 5 minutes of each episode.
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huh. i didn't notice they skipped the clarence episode. i watched it last week after it was posted. i guess it was just on television. did some people really not watch it and it actually was out of order? it actually did have a reveal in it, with the whole doctor using the memory experiment in reverse thing.
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when did Clarence episode come on, Fox still had Daytona where I was until 11 or so. Could not find on Hulu either. next day.

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The first episode was soooooo bad in almost every way I didn't even watch the 2nd episode and I'm done with this series
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Thanks for clearing up the gold question. I'm Canadian and I was thinking my lack of knowledge of the US Civil War was hindering my enjoyment of this plotline. Nope. Just bad writing. Well, now I know! (It actually was a good episode, but the gold thing was just too huge of a plot point to go unexplained.)
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Well, it's not that they entirely made up the idea of civil war gold. There are tales of hidden Confederate gold in the south. San Francisco is not so much in the south.
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Personally I can't see why you have such a vendetta against this show. You previously made a comparison to Flashforward and the Event, which I watched but found relentlessly frustrating, and although I can see what you're getting at, this show is much more enjoyable. I don't mind the slow pace of the story arc, as the whole catching a bad guy every week thing makes it flow. Its no different to the first season of Fringe.
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Why do people make that Fringe comparison every week?



Just because there are one or two shows every now and then that get better after its first season doesn't make it a logical excuse for every show that stinks out of the gate. Any time seemingly the majority of its viewers thinks a show sucks, are people making a strong point in saying "Well, Fringe sucked in its first season too"? If that's the case, we'll end up supporting every single show that airs, including Work It and How to be a Gentleman. "Fringe got better, Work It can too!"



Sometimes, a turd is just a turd. Aside from the mystery of the premise of the show, Alcatraz has been very turd-like.
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The point is, the majority on this board think it sucks. Go over to the AVClub. Of course there are no reviews of this show which are a glaring endorsement (it's in the b- / c territory where it belongs), but it makes this reviews by Tim just sound hatefull for no real reason. It's just an average show which tries to get a foot int the door.



Let's go to the comparison to "Fringe". Fringe wasn't good during the first half of Season 1. It lost a lot of viewers and is sadly still struggeling to get the back. I still remember how Anna Torv was called a bad actress and the whole show had this contained episodes feeling. People kept screaming for answeres NOW. It just feels very similar. Fringe was compared to Lost which had a fantastic start. But it only delivered later. The 2nd Season renewal was a little surprise considering the dwindling numbers.



All I say is: People have a short memory.



Oh and btw:

There is this show.... a plane crashes on a magic island. And there is a smokemonster. And a polarbear. And this kid is magic or stuff.



You can make every show sound stupid if you want to.
More +
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That is not a ringing endorsement. Personally, I'd have cancelled Fringe after the first season. I much preferred Eleventh Hour. Fringe didn't get good until the catching a bad guy part took a backseat.
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I'm just curious to find out how long it actually takes to get from SF to Alcatraz and back?
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If I recall accurately the ferry takes about 15 minutes. But I am sure they have some super secret speed boat. But then you have to deal with the traffic. So when I left viewing the show I often wondered how they got around so fast.
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The best characters are still Warden James and Dr. Beauregard!
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I actually enjoyed both episodes. There was definite tension in both because of those criminals, and Warden James' past is becoming more and more shady as time goes by, especially with the gold bars in the first episode. In fact, your question of whether or not he's really dead is a good one. Even Warden Tillen letting prison yard fights go on for a while is starting to make me wonder just what other shady things were done in Alcatraz back then that involved them?
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Juice! Love that character!



Alcatraz! Stopped watching a month ago.
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Yeah, I basically agree with what you said. The first episode was enjoyable because it was a change in pace and location.
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So since the entire episode was in their place of work, does that make this a bottle episode?
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Ugh, that was way too much boredom to suffer through one night, I will need the next week to recover from it and just skip that episode numero 8. If Fox think it can, it's probably even worse than these two ;)... I don't know, shouldn't there be at least any major revelations by now? Unless the mystery part is about which prisoner turns up this week. Or surprise, surprise, we get two or even three once in a while.



I guess Lucy our sleeping beauty knows all the answers ;)... Did anybody see if there was anything like symbols or writing on the gold bar the warden picked up?
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Ugh.....this show.
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Terrible. Good riddance. If we can cancel enough shows on fox, Fringe is a shoe-in. At last check, 12 available hour-long spots, and here's what I expect to still be around after this season:



Bones - 1 (gotta be ending soon too)

Glee - 2

New Girl - 2.5

Rasing Hope - 3

Animation comedys - 3.5,4,4.5,5

Something with Gordon Ramsey - 6

Touch - 7

Idol/X factor/SYTYCD - 8, 9,10 (possible 4 hours, but usually 2 hr perform 1 hr result)

That leaves two spots for:



Fringe

Breaking In (good, but unwatched)/I hate my teenage daugther (terrible)

Alcatraz (good as cancelled)

Medical drama to replace house

Something else with gordon ramsay (you'd think they just give a timeslot and rotate the shows all year long)

Anything else to compete?
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I don't understand all the love that Fringe gets. That show has been terrible since day one and should never have seen a second season.
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Interestingly, the show became rather completely different and came into its own with season 3. So to say it has been terrible since day one is to imply a consistency that isn't there. I can only assume that what you meant to say is "I didn't like the first couple episodes of Fringe, and haven't actually watched it since, so I assume all the rest of them are bad".
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Yeah, I cannot comprehend how one can say Fringe is terrible. While it began as fairly run of the mill with some interesting differences, it definitely became an exceptional sci-fi series couched in complex characters and infinitely fascinating philosophical questions.
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After those two hours, I think me and Lucy can switch places...I feel borderline comatose
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Terra Nova has shown the way... Alcatraz will follow
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