On March 21st, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed. All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that's not what happened. Not at all.
—Emerson Hauser, opening monologue
Alcatraz is a 2012 Fox series produced by J. J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions. On March 21st, 1963, all of the prisoners and guards on duty at Alcatraz Federal Prison mysteriously vanished without a trace. The government quickly put down a Masquerade, saying that Alcatraz had been closed down due to outdated technology and soaring budget costs. Now, in the present day, one of the prisoners who disappeared, Jack Sylvane, turns up, not looking a day older, and goes on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, killing a deputy warden who gave him a hard time while he was in prison. This brings him to the attention of SFPD detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), who finds his fingerprints at the scene. This in turn brings her to the attention of the mysterious Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), who claims to be an FBI agent investigating the murder. With the help of Alcatraz expert Diego "Doc" Soto (Jorge Garcia), she is able to track down Sylvane, which gets her and Diego involved with Hauser's real project: to track down and recapture all of the "63"'s, including the mysterious Inmate 2002, who turns out to be Rebecca's own grandfather, Thomas Madsen.Not to be confused with the Alcatraz Series.
Air-Vent Passageway: Rebecca uses a air vent to sneak into a bank during a hostage situation in "Cal Sweeney".
The Alcatraz: Both the titular prison and the new Alcatraz prison that the federal government built specifically to house captured "63"'s.
Anti-Villain: The first inmate to show up, Jack Sylvane, skirts the edge of this with his sympathetic backstory. After serving in World War II, he got sent to federal prison for robbing a grocery store to feed his family. Then he killed a man in the showers for attempting to rape him, which got him sent to Alcatraz where E.B. Tiller messed with him apparently For the Lulz. On top of that, his wife divorced him to marry his brother.
Hauser's organization seems to exist solely to recapture 256 of the worst criminals the country's ever known. Except Hauser is the kind of asshole. He's willing to put innocent lives in danger in order to insure that he can capture the "63s" - as in, Kit Nelson is a serial child murderer whose M.O. is kidnapping his victims from their beds on a Friday, messing with their heads for the next 48 hours, then putting their bodies back where he found them on Sunday. Hauser's solution? Send the police away and grab Nelson when he delivers the body.
The Chessmaster: Garrett Stillman. He even is shown playing chess in one flashback.
Cool and Unusual Punishment / Loud of War: The warden of Alcatraz comes up with a unique punishment for Ernest Cobb, who deliberately got himself thrown in solitary because he hates people talking. He lets Cobb stay in solitary indefinitely, but puts another inmate who can't shut up in the same cell as him.
Dangerously Close Shave: In "Cal Sweeney", the prison barber accidentally cuts Tiller while Tiller is demanding a cut of Sweeney's racket. The barber's reaction shows he expects some retribution from Tiller, but Tiller uses the cut as an opportunity to deliver a veiled threat to Sweeney about what happens if you shave against the grain.
Deadly Prank: Johnny McKee was the victim of a nasty prank in high school that ended with a firecracker exploding between his legs and castrating him. He started killing people as revenge.
The Dragon: In the 1960s, Tiller and Dr. Beauregard served as this to the Warden, though Tiller had hints of The Starscream as well.
In the present day, Tommy Madsen seems to serve as this to the Warden.
Even Evil Has Standards: Kit Nelson was a constant target of the other inmates, the guards, and the warden, due to his status as a child killer.
Exposition of Immortality: The character of Lucy was just a minor character working on the special task force investigating the reappearing criminals who disappeared from Alcatraz Island several decades before, but a flashback revealed her working as a psychiatrist in the 60s on Alcatraz Island. A single video of her known to have been taken in the 60s is the one clue to the other characters of her true age.
The criminals and guards who disappeared from Alcatraz in 1963 return to the present day the same age as when they left, as evidenced by photos of them taken in the prison, and a few individuals who happened to have known them before their disappearance.
Hauser: I want him alive, I want them all captured alive!
Doc: He does realize he's the only one who shoots them, right?
E.B. Tiller appears to be one, seeing as how he never misses a chance to lecture the inmates on how they are irredeemable monsters for breaking the law, and then threatens inmates into cutting him in on their take from contraband smuggling. (To be fair, his first choice would be shutting down the contraband ring, but the Warden won't let him.)
Jerk Ass: Emerson Hauser, E.B. Tiller, and the Warden. It looks like Alcatraz in the 1960s just naturally attracted sadists to work as guards.
Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Hauser has his moments, like near the end of "Guy Hastings", where he lets Guy see (if not speak to) his daughter and grandchildren, and apologizing for what's happened to him.
Hauser: You're a victim in this. You don't deserve what's happened to you.
Also, in regards to Lucy, Hauser seems to soften up quite a bit. Understandable, since they were romantically involved prior to the disappearances.
Alcatraz was a federal prison so Hauser and the FBI would have primary jurisdiction over the returnees. However, the government is not willing to make public what happened and the new crimes committed by the returnees would normally fall under SFPD jurisdiction. Since Rebecca is a SFPD detective the local cops are less likely to question her involvement and Hauser can later smooth things over with the SFPD brass.
In "Cal Sweeney", Hauser deliberately creates jurisdiction issues as a stall tactic. He acts as the stereotypical arrogant FBI agent and tries to take charge of a hostage situation. This buys Rebecca enough time to implement her own plan to apprehend the returnee.
Kick the Son of a Bitch: Emerson Hauser, E.B. Tiller, and the Warden appear to be sadists who found a socially acceptable outlet for their habits.
Land Mine Goes Click: "Paxton Petty" is all about this, as Petty uses land mines as his primary weapon. Hauser steps on a mine Petty planted on the beach, hears it go click, and has to stand there for several hours until Rebecca and Soto realise that he is missing.
Loophole Abuse: Whitten, who sold Ernest Cobb the Winchester-70, had his license to sell guns taken away by the ATF. When Rebecca inquires about this, he points out his wife's permits are all legal and up-to-date, allowing him to continue working in the store.
Ernest himself used this to secure solitary confinement (he hates talking to people) by refusing to stand by his cell door during inspection, thus committing the barest infraction of the rules. The Warden congratulates him on his ingenuity in getting peace and quiet... then proceeds to give Ernest a cellmate who never shuts up.
Luke, I Am Your Father: It's revealed at the end of the first episode that Rebecca's grandfather was one of the first returned inmates, and was actually the person who killed her first partner to shake her off. She seems more intrigued than anything else though.
Mad Bomber: Paxton Petty was a Korean War vet who felt betrayed by the government and started planting land mines in San Francisco. He even uses a landmine as a grenade.
Cobb: There are 47 slats in the picket fence. 4-7. 1-2-3-4. 1-2-3-4. 4-7. (ad infinitum)
The Masquerade: The US federal government, unwilling to disclose that the most successful prison break in recorded history occurred in 1963, released an official explanation for the closing of Alcatraz and created fake transfers to other prisons (signed by Robert Kennedy himself), then later issued fake death certificates saying they all died at the prisons they were transferred to.
Man Child: Hauser notes that Dr. Soto displays clear signs of arrested development, which is later revealed to be due to being kidnapped when he was 11.
The McCoy: Dr. Soto seems to be slipping into this role, especially in episode 3.
Mugged for Disguise: In "Garrett Stillman", Stillman hijacks an armoured car and steals the guards' uniforms, leaving them in an alleyway in their underwear.
No Celebrities Were Harmed: Ernest Cobb is suspiciously similar to Charles Whitman. While they ultimately differ in characterization, motive, and methods the inspiration is clear and the allusion seems intentional (as opposed to unintentionally just using now stock traits) when it is stated that Cobb killed 16 people, as Whitman did in real life.
Not So Different: The "63's" tend to be vicious yet Sympathetic Criminals. The guards of the time and the group hunting them down in the present are protecting society in doing so, but are prone to casual sadism. The key theme of the series seems to be the similarities between criminals and those who hunt and/or punish them. The inmates appear to be pitiful wrecks with Freudian Excuses, often deserving of execution, but the dehumanizing treatment they received at the hands of its staff has not lessened the threat they pose to society but increased it. The guards appear to be sadistic monsters who have simply chosen a profession that permits them to practice their sadism in a socially acceptable manner. Whether or not this is Truth in Television has yet to be decided, but there is controversialevidence to support this theory.
Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Johnny McKee was a victim of bullying in high school which culminated in a Deadly Prank that seriously injured him. As revenge he killed most of his classmates. While he initially only wanted to kill 'bullies', he escalates to killing people who are rude to him and then to just killing complete strangers.
Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: It's entirely possible that Ernest Cobb would have happily spent the rest of his life at Alcatraz in solitary, a threat to no-one... except the warden found it necessary to screw with him until he completely lost his mind, just so he could call in Lucille Sengupta, AKA Lucy Banerjee for some as-of-yet undisclosed purpose.
Serial Killings, Specific Target: Cobb is a variartion on this. He is a serial killer, but at each kill he shoots a number of random people as 'noise' to mask his true choice of target.
The initial chase scene with Rebecca and her partner is very similar (in particular the camera angles and the way in which he holds on to the roof) to the opening chase scene in Vertigo, also set in San Francisco.
Smug Snake: Sonny Burnett. He was almost a Magnificent Bastard, entering prison as a scared, rather pathetic kidnapper and subsequently reinventing himself into a musclebound Bad Ass through sheer force of will. But his assertion that the cops would "never" find his latest kidnap victim, followed in short order by them doing exactly that, proves he's still not much of a criminal.
The Spock: Hauser is shaping up to be a rather nasty version of this.
Cobb first appears to be killing randomly, until Rebecca figures out that he kills random people in order to conceal his real targets: 15-16 year old girls, like the sister he was resentful of because their mom took care of her but abandoned him at an orphanage. He also kills crows as a calling card.
Kit Nelson is also this, kidnapping and killing 11 year old boys, the same age as his brother when Kit killed him. He kidnaps them on a Friday, leaves behind a chrysanthemum in the bed, then returns the dead body Sunday evening.
Clarence Montgomery was turned into this by Dr. Beauregard. Though he was wrongfully convicted of killing his white girlfriend, Dr. Beauregard used a reversed version of Dr. Sengupta's treatments to make him kill people in the same manner as which she died.
Trauma Conga Line: Jack Sylvane's entire life basically comes down to a long series of these.
Unresolved Sexual Tension: Averted. Rebecca and Doc are the typical female/male investigative duo that almost universally results in this, but they don't appear to have any romantic interest in each other.
Viewers Are Morons: Is it really necessary to bring up the fact that Tommy Madsen is Rebecca's grandfather every single time he's mentioned? Especially when talking to Becca herself, who already knows that?
Edwin James, the warden of Alcatraz. He has been shown to resort to psychological torture in order to learn crucial information about prisoners, such as manipulating Ernest Cobb's attempts to be placed in solitary confinement or threatening to leave Kit Nelson in a small dark room until Nelson admits the truth about his first crime (although Kit Nelson really had it coming, having been sent to Alcatraz for being a child killer).
Deputy Warden E.B. Tiller is corrupt and more open in his cruelty to the inmates.
You Are Number Six: The prisoners tend to be known by their prisoner number rather than their names.
Tommy Madsen specifically introduces himself by number when he's introduced to keep The Reveal that he's Rebecca's grandfather secret a little longer.
Tiller has a habit of referring to inmates by their numbers as opposed to their names.
You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Garrett Stillman was once betrayed by his partner in crime so now he gets rid of all his accomplices after they have fulfilled their role. He's also the victim of this trope, c/o Tommy Madsen.