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JAN
16
3 YEARS

Alcatraz: TV Review

The J.J. Abrams-produced Fox drama revolves around the concept that when the infamous prison closed, all the remaining prisoners mysteriously vanished. And now they're back.

Alcatraz Pilot Ep Parminder Nagra Jorge Garcia - H 2012
Liane Hentscher/FOX

It’s almost impossible not to like any dramatic concept conceived around Alcatraz, the famous and shuttered prison-turned-tourist-attraction that sits on its own little island, from what seems a stone’s throw from one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Except there’s not a lengthy list of quality fiction about Alcatraz. And as much as the notion for Fox’s new drama seems eagerly palpable – when Alcatraz closed, all the remaining prisoners were not shipped to other prisons, they mysteriously vanished – there’s not much payoff to the premise.

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Which is a real shame, because there’s a good show here somewhere. The prisoners have started coming back. And they haven’t aged. And they’re picking up where they left off in the doing-bad-things department.

It just sounds so perfect. Right? All 302 prisoners and guards went poof into the night. Now, a San Francisco cop, Det. Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), has stumbled on a murder committed by the first prisoner to surface. She's aided in her search by “Alcatraz expert and comic book enthusiast” Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto (Jorge Garcia). Those two get more information than they really know what to do with once they interfere with and then essentially get absorbed by government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) and his less evil-seeming partner, Lucy (Parminder Nagra). Yeah, we know the real story, Hauser says reluctantly. But the hows and whys will come slowly.

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The immediate question is, how long are you willing to wait? After all, Alcatraz is executive produced by J.J. Abrams, and we know his track record with mythology. On the other hand, each of the first two episodes felt like closed-ended procedurals that tracked one missing Alcatraz prisoner over the course of the hour. Only 300 to go!

But something’s amiss. For starters, Alcatraz is another one of those series you want to love but end up liking, and even then with some caveats. Meaning, it’s not yet fully realized, and the first two episodes (shown together tonight) hook you with the premise – Alcatraz! Prisoners! Unexplained phenomena! – but go about the rest of it in a plodding fashion.

Alcatraz ends up feeling like a rote, by-the-numbers procedural and less like anything Abrams was actively involved in because it lacks real passion and flair. This is one island you don’t yet want to get Lost on.

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You know something’s off when Jones can’t seem to hook you as a main character, Garcia seems to be going out of his way to make you forget his Hurley character from Lost – by lowering his pulse and quip rate – while Neill seems to be playing laid-back-sinister to new levels of casualness.

In short, they don’t seem so thrilled about Alcatraz.

Half the time you want to shake them. The Rock! Infamous prison! Prisoners have vanished (and now returned) in some perfectly J.J. Abrams kind of crazy mystery. This will be awesome if you’d just wake up!

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough to invest in even if they did become compelling as a trio. The writing if flat and expository-laden. The drama – outside of the mystery of how it all happened – is saddled to predictable plots. The exterior shots (and some location shooting) in San Francisco look beautiful. But it might be easier just to buy a postcard and save yourself the time of investing in Alcatraz, another series that can’t seem to do much with what it’s given.

Airs Monday, Jan. 16, at 8 p.m., then Mondays at 9 p.m., Fox

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com