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TV Tuesday: "Alcatraz"

January 17, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

Hey. It's January. The weather is terrible. The Steelers are out of the playoffs. What else are you going to do on Monday night? So, we ventured out of the HBO zone for the "Alcatraz" pilot on Fox (although we're not sure we would have had we not just visited the famous prison in September).

It's a J.J. Abrams show, created by a team that includes Bryan Burk, Elizabeth Sarnoff and Jack Bender, starring Jorge Garcia, with the pilot scored by Michael Giacchino, so, yeah, the "Lost" comparisons are a given. We assumed such comparisons were a marketing gimmick. We were wrong.

First off, there's time travel. While it took "Lost" four seasons to admit it was a sci-fi show, there's no such issue with "Alcatraz." To get on board, the shows asks us to believe that several hundred inmates "disappeared" on the day The Rock closed in 1963 and are now reappearing (unaged) in present-day San Francisco to wreak havoc.

The first character we meet on Alcatraz is a sullen, stubbly inmate named Jack, who's nothing more than a number (2024, which adds up to 8, btw) at the infamous prison. By the episode's end, Jack's been recaptured and taken into a mysterious hatch (we're not making this up) in a redwood forest where a modern-day Alcatraz has been re-created underground.

The man doing the capturing is Emerson Hauser (Sam Neil), who was a wide-eyed rookie guard on the day Alcatraz closed, but now heads a shadowy agency trying to solve the mystery of "the 1963s," as the lost (get it?) inmates are known. Hauser has the exact same "is he a good guy or a bad guy?" vibe as Benjamin Linus, although Neil lacks the acting chops of Michael Emerson in pulling it off (and the acting on the show, in general, seems lackluster, although maybe that perception will change with more character development).

Hauser's team includes a beautiful and mysterious assistant (Parminder Nagra), who we learn in a last-second twist (sound familiar?) just might be a 1963 herself, as well as an SFPD detective (Sarah Jones) with family ties to The Rock and a wise-cracking comic book store owner/Alcatraz expert (Garcia).

By the end of the two-hour premiere, we were at once delighted and infuriated with how "Alcatraz" was embracing its "Lost" kinship. The delight comes in the form of hope that the mysteries here (What's with all the keys? What's the importance/significance of all the blood?) will actually have a payoff. The fury follows soon after, when the brain thinks something like this, "Oh no, not again. Fool me once, J.J. Abrams, shame on you. Fool me multiple times, shame on me. Must not get hooked. Must not get hooked. Must not..." You get the picture.

The episodic nature of the show -- each week, the team will track one of the 1963s and eventually lock them up again in the 2012 underground lair -- is firmly in place, so the real question about "Alcatraz" moving forward is how much of the mythology/weirdness is going to be explored and whether there will be any substance behind it or will it be (as many critics of "Lost" claimed) mystery for the sake of mystery.

We're not on board with "Alcatraz" yet, but we'll be back next Monday. After all, it's January.

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