J.J. Abrams' Alcatraz: This is one mysterious island whose secrets won't drive you nuts

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J.J. Abrams' next TV show features an island and time-spanning mysteries, but it's nothing like Lost. Even the presence of a former Lost writer and Jorge Garcia in a major role don't make it any more Lost-y.


We've seen the pilot for Alcatraz, Abrams' new show, and it's more like a detective show with a big crazy mystery at its center. Here's our early review, with only no spoilers other than what you could glean from the network's press release.

As usual, we have to caution that we've seen an early pilot, and the first episode of the show, when it airs sometime in early 2012, could well look very different. And this is just our early first impressions from watching the show.

Early reports suggested that Fox might not pick up Alcatraz, because there were misgivings about the pilot. And having watched the pilot, we have a feeling we know what the network execs were worried about. It's not a bad episode of television, by any means – there are a few astoundingly brilliant moments scattered here and there – but it's very slow to unfold, and it doesn't do very much to make you care one way or the other about what's going on.

The first 12 minutes or thereabouts deal with the central mystery of Alcatraz and its vanishing inmates, and we don't meet any of the show's regular characters until well into the second act. And when we do meet the show's actual stars, they feel barely sketched out for a good long stretch of time. The most compelling character in the pilot is the show's first "villain of the week," Jack Sylvane — someone we have no reason to believe will reappear after this episode.

What's good about Alcatraz is that there's a strong theme of crime and punishment running through it. Alcatraz isn't just a notorious prison because it was built on an island – it's also a terribly brutal place, where our most violent and unrepentant criminals were treated like vermin. The pilot doesn't hold back from showing us what a sadistic place Alcatraz was, and hints at the possibility that some of the inmates were guilty of not much more than bad luck. It's a stroke of genius for a crime show to deal so openly with questions of how we deal with crime, and what kinds of penalties are too harsh.


In a sense, the inmates of Alcatraz have gotten a second chance, due to the show's one and only magical/science-fictional conceit. And for the show to have any plots to go on, those inmates mostly have to waste that second chance, or at least lose it. There's also a very potent question, which the show hints at – what do you do with these men, who come from an earlier era and are guilty of some horrible atrocities? (Not to mention the fact that they're not even supposed to exist, in this day and age.)

Here's how Fox describes the premise of Alcatraz:

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When San Francisco Police Department DET. REBECCA MADSEN (Sarah Jones, "Sons of Anarchy") is assigned to a grisly homicide case, a fingerprint leads her to a shocking suspect: JACK SYLVANE (guest star Jeffrey Pierce, "The Nine"), a former Alcatraz inmate who died decades ago. Given her family history – both her grandfather and surrogate uncle, RAY ARCHER (Robert Forster, "Jackie Brown"), were guards at the prison – Madsen's interest is immediately piqued, and once the enigmatic, knows-everything-but-tells-nothing government agent EMERSON HAUSER (Sam Neill, "Jurassic Park") tries to impede her investigation, she's doggedly committed. Madsen turns to Alcatraz expert and comic book enthusiast, DR. DIEGO "DOC" SOTO (Jorge Garcia, "Lost"), to piece together the inexplicable sequence of events. The twosome discovers that Sylvane is not only alive, but he's loose on the streets of San Francisco, leaving bodies in his wake. And strangely, he hasn't aged a day since he was in Alcatraz, when the prison was ruled by the iron-fisted WARDEN EDWIN JAMES (Jonny Coyne, "Undercovers") and the merciless ASSOCIATE WARDEN E.B. TILLER (Jason Butler Harner, "The Changeling"). Madsen and Soto reluctantly team with Agent Hauser and his technician, LUCY BANERJEE (Parminder Nagra, "ER"), to stop Sylvane's vengeful killing spree. By delving into Alcatraz history, government cover-ups and Rebecca's own heritage, the team will ultimately discover that Sylvane is only a small part of a much larger, more sinister present-day threat. For while he may be the first, it quickly becomes clear that Sylvane won't be the last prisoner to reappear from Alcatraz. Through the course of the investigation, Madsen and Soto will learn that Agent Hauser has known about the prison's secret history and has been awaiting the prisoners' return. Soto will witness his life's work – the history of Alcatraz – come alive. Madsen will be forced to keep her supportive San Francisco cop fiancé, JIMMY DICKENS (Santiago Cabrera, "Heroes"), at arm's length from the highly classified assignment as she sees everything she thought she knew about her family's past shattered, all while fighting to keep the country safe from history's most dangerous criminals.


The show's cast is pretty uniformly great. Sam Neill is always a delight to watch, and his role as TK is no exception. Jorge Garcia is basically playing Hugo Reyes a second time, even though this time he's a professor with two PhDs. (He also runs a comic book store and plays video games, just so we know he's a total nerd.) Sarah Jones is perfectly serviceable as Rebecca, although she has some of the clunkiest "cop show" dialogue to cope with in the pilot, and her character's motivations never quite become believable.

My biggest question mark about Alcatraz after watching the pilot was, How are they going to keep this interesting week after week? The show seems to be making an admirable effort to keep its mysteries simple and contained, which means individual episodes probably won't be too steeped in mythos for casual viewers to follow. But it's easy to imagine, based on the pilot, that every episode of this show will be basically the same thing with a few variations.


All in all, Alcatraz is a show that has some fascinating ideas to explore, and a pretty neat basic premise. The cast is terrific, and the gloomy, ominous setting is used to great effect. But at least in the current version of the pilot, the characters aren't clicking, and the pacing is a thing of utter despair. The good news is, there's plenty of time to fix the episode before it hits our screens in January or February.


sammy baby

I like the idea. But this is one TV Trope that doesn't bode well for the show - my recollection is that when you have a Gotta Catch or Gotta Kill Them All plot for a show, and you put a specific number on the things that need to be caught or killed, you're probably not going to make it past 12.