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TV Review: Alcatraz – “Clarence Montgomery”

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This week’s escaped prisoner on FOX’s Alcatraz is “Clarence Montgomery.” Said to be the only innocent man locked up on The Rock, Clarence (Mahershala Ali, Treme, Alphas, The 4400) begins killing for real when he emerges in 2012. What’s more, he slays other inmates in the 1960s, after Dr. Beauregard (Leon Rippy, Saving Grace, Deadwood) performs some experiments on him. So how can he be stopped, and why is he acting this way?

The case of “Clarence Montgomery” is a moving one, indeed. Here is a man that was accused of a crime that he didn’t commit, likely because of racist attitudes. See, he is a black man who was dating the white daughter of his boss. It isn’t surprising that in the 1950s this could happen to a person of color. But it’s incredibly unfair, and so viewers will quickly begin feeling for this poor man, to whom circumstance has dealt a bad hand.

The story of “Clarence Montgomery” comes to a tragic ending. Trapped by Hauser (Sam Neill) and company, Clarence’s friend, Emmitt Little (Glynn Turman, House of Lies, The Wire), shoots Clarence dead. The alternative would have been to be locked up in Hauser’s secret prison, and after the tortures Clarence has already undergone, death seems preferable. But that doesn’t make the tale any sadder.

“Clarence Montgomery” extends fans’ knowledge of what is going on in Alcatraz prison, circa 1960, as it expands Dr. Soto’s (Jorge Garcia) information, as well. Soto knows about experimentation going on elsewhere, but didn’t think the same things happened at Alcatraz. Until now. But what is the goal of the Alcatraz tests? Surely they are related to the disappearance of everyone in 1963, and their reemergence now. Thus, they are another piece of the larger mystery that is slowly unfolding.

Alcatraz does a lot of things right. The mystery is being doled out nicely, piece by piece, keeping fans engaged. Soto’s burgeoning relationship with Nikki (Jeananne Goossen, Falcon Beach, The Vow) is sweet. Rebecca’s (Sarah Jones) family secrets keep her heavily involved in the plot. Hauser’s connections with local law enforcement justify much of how the team can do what they do. And the writers are very good at making viewers care about the prisoners, with intriguing, sometimes sympathetic, stories.

Unfortunately, Alcatraz also does a lot of things wrong. How are these prisoners adapting to 2012 so easily? Escpecially Clarence, who must adjust to completely different racial attitudes? The prisoners are confused by the internet, but not by the other technology all around them? They easily can get a job, often multiple jobs, without proper work history and references, when people around the country struggle to find work? None of them consider blending in for awhile and not committing crimes after being given this second chance? And in “Clarence Montgomery,” we are expected to believe that Clarence is the ONLY innocent man in Alcatraz, given the history of the legal system? Really?

Perhaps I’m being picky. Yes, disbelief must be suspended to enjoy a series like Alcatraz. However, taken together they show a lack of foresight and depth to the universe presented. It makes it seem like the show doesn’t have time to explore all the implications because they are being forced to stuff the stories into a crime-of-the-week procedural, which would be a logical conclusion, given the unfortunate glut of this type of programming on network TV. This is a grave mistake that could wind up killing the series quickly. Slow down, take time to fully engage with these issues, and Alcatraz could be something awesome, rather than a great show that falls apart under close scrutiny.

Hopefully, these wrongs will be righted soon. You can watch Alcatraz Mondays at 9:00 p.m. ET on FOX.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com