Frisco Beat: Call Me Al — Al Catraz

For a brief while in there, ennui seized me in its grip, and it seemed like the only thing I had to live for (in the current popular entertainment landscape, at any rate) was the return of The Walking Dead, any day now. Or, as I like to think of it: Daryl Dixon vs. the Zombies. 

I was kind of laying low until January 10 slipped past, the 51st anniversary of Hammett’s death — on the 50th anniversary longtime Hammett fan and author Joe Gores also died (as I was saying on the tour, “You know, that’s taking this whole being a big Hammett fan a little too far”), and I could see the unfortunate talk of a Curse starting to circulate if I followed suit this go-round. I saw Vince Emery and Rick Layman at the Hammett fest a few days ago, so they made it through okay, too. And Zobeck has turned up after a few weeks of ominous silence.

Yeah, I did exit the lair to catch The Artist — as a big fan of Doug Sr., I loved it (very nice use of action clips from The Mark of Zorro). Missi Pyle (always good) did a great thumbnail in the Jean Hagen role. And I wasn’t aware of it until the front credits rolled, but it even features Ed Lauter!

And because it’s got the local angle going for it, plus crime and some kind of Huge Mystery, I decided to give Alcatraz a try. I’ve seen the four episodes thus far, and like it okay — if they pulled it tomorrow, though, it wouldn’t bother me. My biggest problem with it: Sarah Jones as the main star. I can’t get past the fact that she looks to be maybe 20 years old (yes, I checked IMDb and she’s reported to be 29). I can’t see her as an actual San Francisco homicide detective. Good for her that she looks that young, but we’re talking my Suspension of Disbelief here, and it’s just not Willing to Suspend.

Other angles — Hurley, Sam Neill, the escaped inmates, the warden scenario — I like fine. If they never did anything but showcase the recapture of one inmate per episode until the show finally gets cancelled with hundreds of inmates unaccounted for, I might watch for most of a season or two.

Sure, the Big Unexplained Mystery angle might turn out to be pretty good, if they have time to get to it. But this show is from some of the same guys who did Lost, so I wouldn’t hold my breath. I watched the first season of that show off DVDs, and might have been tempted to see more except I happened across an article in Entertainment Weekly or a similar mag which mentioned that the creators were big fans of Stephen King. Great. That means they’ll Blow Up the Island. They’ll feature something incredibly hackneyed, like Giant Spiders. Man, they might as well have trumpeted that they would have no idea how to end the show. And so, today, I’m not investing any passion in the mysterious back story for Alcatraz.

I do like certain other angles. Leon Rippy as the prison doc, he’s always interesting. Plus Geri Jewell comes on scene, making it a little Deadwood reunion.

And while much of the show is shot in Canada, they have filmed some action on the real Rock, and I can watch it for that aspect alone. I’ve visited Alcatraz many times over the years, from the days in the 1970s of the groups led by guides to as recently as a year ago (I went on the very first nighttime tour many moons ago — I like The Rock).

It’s the same factor with many of the San Francisco movies they showcase for Noir City — no, the movie just isn’t that great, but you can see local history right there on the screen.

Eventually, shows like this may be of lingering interest mostly because of the local angle, and the fun you can have separating the real from the fake locations as it rolls. I enjoyed Monk, as an example (except for the incredibly bad two-part finale — talk about losing control of an idea), but not much of it was shot in San Francisco, and locals make fun of it for that reason.

Leo Grin was just telling me how the creators of recent TV shows make similar fun of the shows of yesteryear, the 50s or 60s or 70s, because the technical end of things is so much more polished these days — the special effects are much better, the shootouts more realistic — but how they don’t seem to understand that in thirty years they’ll become their own kind of joke with Canada-as-America — how for people who know San Francisco (or Chicago, Detroit, etc) they may as well have propped up crude cardboard cutouts behind the actors.

And for news of the moment, how about the story that fans of the show are sneaking off to look for the secret HQ of Sam Neill on The Rock? I guess TV is too much to handle for some people.

You might want to wait for the current mania to die down, but the last several times I made the trip the park rangers you’ll see standing around were quite willing, in fact, to take small groups of four or five people off to areas behind-the-scenes (the real scenes, not the fake Canadian set scenes) — tunnels and sub-basements that date from the Civil War, the elevated mesh-enclosed walkway the guards patrolled with rifles, and so on. You have to ask, and it couldn’t hurt to show that maybe you know something more than fans of the TV show.

My trick to show that I am in-the-know is to drop the name of Creepy Karpis. If you don’t know Creepy, you should. Look him up. A real bigtime criminal in the real world who was imprisoned on the real Alcatraz.

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