Oh the Things We Have Seen: First Impressions of J.J. Abrams' Alcatraz

By Tim Surette

Jul 11, 2011

Just after fall schedules are determined at networks' upfront presentations in late May, major networks send the pilots of their new programs to the media. These previews are not for in-depth review, because many pilots are retooled, recast, and reshot before they officially debut, and the final product might be much different. But that doesn't mean we can't share some basic ideas of what to expect!

The Show: Alcatraz on Fox; will air Mondays early next year (exact date TBD)

The Cast: Sarah Jones, Jorge Garcia (Hurley from Lost), Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Parminder Nagra, Robert Forster

Fox's lengthy logline, paraphrased: "When San Francisco Police Department Det. Rebecca Madsen (Jones) is assigned to a grisly homicide case, a fingerprint leads her to a shocking suspect: Jack Sylvane, a former Alcatraz inmate who died decades ago. Given her family history—both her grandfather and surrogate uncle, Ray Archer (Forster), were guards at the prison—Madsen’s interest is immediately piqued, and once the enigmatic, knows-everything-but-tells-nothing government agent Emerson Hauser (Neill) tries to impede her investigation, she’s doggedly committed. Madsen turns to Alcatraz expert and comic book enthusiast Dr. Diego Soto (Garcia) 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 a prisoner at Alcatraz. Madsen and Soto reluctantly team with Agent Hauser to stop Sylvane’s vengeful killing spree. 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."

Early Intel: Alcatraz is J.J. Abrams series, and the pilot I watched has his fingerprints all over it. Fox was originally reluctant to pick up the series because it didn't really know what the show was about (as is the case with most of Abrams' shows), but showrunner Elizabeth Sarnoff (a producer on Lost) gave the network a general overview of the big picture, and Fox bought it.

First Thoughts: My interest in the show wavered a bit after watching, as what unfurled on the screen was just a straight procedural peppered with a bigger mystery. But there's still plenty of hope for the series, as that's pretty much how Fringe started, and now it's one of the best shows on TV. It looks like Alcatraz may take the same route of disguising itself as a procedural because that's what networks like, and eventually evolve into a serialized drama brimming with intrigue and sci-fi elements. But will it be too little, too late? And will Fox try to keep a tight leash on it?

What it has going for it: It's J.J. Abrams, so of course there are tons of great questions in the pilot that you'll want to see answered. How did people disappear from Alcatraz decades ago and why are they reappearing now? Who the heck is Hauser? Etc., etc. There are also some cool flashbacks to the '60s, and who doesn't love Sam Neill? Plus, there's a huge opportunity for some amazing guest-casting with the criminal-of-the-week format.

Room for Improvement: There oughta be a TV genre called "J.J. Abram-edies," because there's a familiar formula at play here. One mysterious event is just the surface of a larger, more important enigma—with a secret organization behind it all. And no one answers the "Tell me what happened!" or "What's going on?" request, ever. Will Alcatraz be the same thing we've seen before dressed in a prison jumpsuit?

The Coolest Part of the Early Version: Nothing super noteworthy, but the pilot was shot largely on-location in gorgeous San Francisco.

Last Word: This isn't Abrams' best TV work (Lost), nor is it his worst (Undercovers); so far it's somewhere in between.

Here's ABC's official trailer for the series:

Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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  • geminon Aug 28, 2011

    Hmmm looks interesting....but I'm afraid that this may end up like "flashforward"....Fox is really good at canceling series....:(

  • karp_47 Aug 24, 2011

    No thanks

  • shadowclone7290 Aug 22, 2011

    I have to say Alcatraz looks pretty amazing so fingers crossed that it beats out Lost as J.J. Abrams new masterpiece :)

  • lazarius12 Aug 20, 2011

    Procedural shows should be the downfall of modern television, yet people continue to watch them and it baffles my mind. I've enjoyed Fringe because of J.J. and I've enjoyed Castle because of Fillion, but every other procedural show is completely unnecessary. I believe we have somewhere around a half dozen or more crime shows starting this fall and it just sickens me that networks think people will watch this, and even more so because I know people WILL watch them. Dexter and Fringe are two of the best examples of procedural shows done right and I wish more networks would try to do something more unique like them.

  • mattgus Aug 19, 2011

    i really like fringe and lost was great drama and suspence,but we know that mr abrams can fail like the rest of us. last yrs spy "horror" showed us that. m night shyamalan is showing us the same thing these days. but he has had enough great success to give his work more than just a passing glance. so i will certainly give it the 1st several weeks and hope it is so good i don't have to think about it. i have to say however that the premise seems flat,but i thought the premise of alphas was overdone and it has been a great ride.

  • CoffeeCake225 Aug 01, 2011

    i love the idea for the show, but I'm worried how its going to play out.

  • azsunnygrl Jul 31, 2011

    I generally like JJ's shows, but they tend to fizzle at the end. I'll probably watch this, at least for a few episodes.

  • Doctor_Crowe Jul 24, 2011

    I bet it's gonna be a good show and then Fox is going to cancel it as they do to every good new show.

  • daddydriz Jul 22, 2011

    I'll definitely check it out. i just wish it was on ABC vs. Fox, as I hate investing time in Fox serials knowing they'll have a short leash.

  • pcsjunior002 Jul 18, 2011

    Sam Neill is always worth a glance. And J. J. Abrams has "Lost" and "Fringe" on his resume. I like the concept, will give it a shot, and will expect good things from it.

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