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'Alcatraz' Premiere: What the Critics Are Saying

The setting for J.J. Abrams' new Fox series inspires initial enthusiasm among reviewers, but some fear the series can't deliver on the legendary prison island's promise.

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

Fox debuts the two-hour season opener for Alcatraz, its new thriller from Lost executive producer J.J. Abrams on Monday. Based on the legendary island prison near San Francisco, the series imagines that all of the occupants – prisoners, guards, etc. – disappeared in the early-sixties when the prison closed, but now the convicts are returning to wreak havoc once again.

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The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic, Tim Goodman, expressed an initial excitement for the series’ premise, but says it doesn’t yet live up to the expectations generated from what could conceivably be a good show.

“Something’s amiss,” Goodman points out. “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.”

New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger took a decidedly more enthusiastic take on the series calling its procedural meets supernatural themes an “appealing concoction.” “That combination and tasty casting make Alcatraz a spunky upgrade over the collection of interchangeable police procedurals clogging the television schedule,” he writes.

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He also credits Lost alum Jorge Garcia, who plays an Alcatraz expert and comic book enthusiast, with making the series’ character interplay “click.” “Mr. Garcia enlivens every scene he’s in and provides droll humor as well,” he writes.

While a bit more reserved than Genzlinger, L.A. Times critic Mary McNamara is also quite taken with the Lost EP’s new project. “Abrams is a writer who has, in the past, chosen mood over coherent story, with mixed results,” she writes.

“If the first season of his Fringe had as strong a narrative sense as it does now, it probably would not be struggling so much in the ratings,” she continues. “Here he has both — mood galore and a premise strong enough to not only sire a great pilot but to sustain a solid series.”

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McNamara does reserve some judgment. She finds that lead Sarah Jones, who plays homicide detective Rebecca Madsen, may be too green for the part and has a hard time going up against Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), who plays a government agent who knows more than he admits. And she fears that the finite space provided by the island may limit its action.

“Undoubtedly, Alcatraz is among the best the midseason has to offer,” she says. “And though it may whip like the TARDIS through the outer reaches of time and believability, Abrams wisely included a procedural element to sustain it.”

Swinging to the other side of the critical pendulum, New York Magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz says he found the “two-hour premiere so listless that I’m having a hard time mustering the energy to pan it. And the second episode is only a slight improvement.”

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Seitz isn’t sure that the series’ use of the prison island turned tourist attraction lives up to its legacy. “The place has such a rich history — one that has already been alluded to in such films as Birdman of Alcatraz and Escape From Alcatraz,” he writes.

“I’m not yet convinced that it should be reduced to a mere backdrop for sci-fi mythologizing by remnants of the Lost writers room and cast,” he continues. “But we’ll see.”

Seitz sees some very difficult hurdles before he could even consider its serial meets procedural brand of storytelling. “The show is clearly trying to split the difference between long-form serial storytelling and weekly one-off stories that might engage casual viewers,” he says. “But the characters are so TV cute (and in some cases TV pretty) and the storytelling so mechanical, that I couldn’t give myself over to it either way.”

Which reviews do you agree with? Tell us in the comments section below.