When a television network wants to produce a show about shadowy conspiracies filled with mysterious figures whose motives range from opaque to obtuse, there's only one producer to call: J.J. Abrams. You've read his name in this column before; in the last decade he has had at least a hand in the creation of shows like "Lost," "Alias," "Fringe" and this season's "Person of Interest."
He's not just a marquee TV name -- he's a brand. If you were (or are) a fan of his programs, you have some idea what his shows are going to be like; twisty mystery plots, played out by lots of characters you can't quite get a bead on, all contained within well-produced, professionally-mounted programs.
Airing Monday nights, the new FOX series "Alcatraz," which comes from his Bad Robot production banner, has all the hallmarks of an Abrams show. It even opens with a dramatic, foreboding narration: to paraphrase, the infamous island prison was supposedly closed on March 21, 1963 because it had fallen into disrepair and the cost of fixing the place was too high. Prisoners and guards were transferred, the prison was closed.
"But that's not what happened," the narrator adds at the end. So what did?
According to this show, all 302 person on "the Rock" simply vanished into thin air.
That's an admittedly intriguing place to start. (I'd be willing to bet that the narration comes close to the first words of the pitch to the network executives who were likely falling all over themselves to buy the series.) Unfortunately, the show doesn't quite know what to do with the concept, and it ends up being something of a disappointment.
The first hour, like any pilot episode, sets up the world of the show. San Francisco police detective Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones), still shaken by the line-of-duty death of her partner a few months before, is called to the scene of a homicide. As she's working the case, a mysterious Federal agent named Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) comes in and orders her off the investigation.
The detective's curiosity, however, has been piqued. She lifts a print from a broken picture frame and finds that it belongs to a former Alcatraz inmate. Since the dead man was a former associate warden at the prison, she thinks it was a revenge killing.
Madsen seeks out a comic book shop-owning Alcatraz expert, Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia), who tells her that she's chasing a ghost -- the inmate died 30 years ago.
The viewers, however, know that isn't the case. We see the un-aged prisoner, Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce) waking up in an off-limits area of the prison in modern day, taking a boat off the island and pursuing a course of violence, partly out of revenge and partly for another reason not even hinted at here. (Gotta build a season-long mystery, you see.) We also get plenty of flashbacks to Sylvane's prison experience, which are helpfully segued into by the sound of a cell door sliding shut and an unmistakable visual cue.
Madsen and Soto eventually team up with Hauser to capture Sylvane. What happens next I will not spoil, but suffice it to say that the resolution is right along the lines of a J.J. Abrams production.
Which leads into the main reason why I didn't think "Alcatraz" worked, and it's an accusation that's been leveled at other Abrams shows by many of his critics -- lots of sizzle, very little steak. The main idea is interesting (and is loaded with potential), but the conspiracy undercurrent gets far too much play, which pushes what should be the central concept -- the return of vanished Alcatraz prisoners and guards -- into the background.
The best shows that Abrams has been involved with feature a heaping helping of mystery to be sure, but the characters drive the story, not the other way around. "Alcatraz" seems more interested in tying its plot in knots and taking the people caught up in those story strands along for the ride. Like I said, there's a good idea here; I wish that the makers would have trusted in it more. Two and a half stars (out of four).