Here's a formula for generating interest in a new show. Step 1: Make it about anything. Step 2: Slap J.J. Abrams' name on it.
That's what Fox has done with Alcatraz, the latest mysterious mystery from the mystery-maker behind TV's benchmark of enigmas and brain enemas, Lost. But it's unclear exactly how much involvement Abrams (who's become a modern-day Spielberg by attaching his name to many, many projects) has with Alcatraz. He didn't write it. He didn't direct it. He didn't even come up with the idea.
The show is actually the baby of Elizabeth Sarnoff (a writer who worked on Lost), but she left the project over creative differences with Fox. Production was halted, and scenes were re-shot. In other words, this show got hijacked. It's not a good sign when the show's creator can't even stay aboard.
But the main premise remains, and it's this: Back in 1963, more than 300 guards and inmates from the famous island prison disappeared! In the present day, they're returning under the direction of some unknown party, and they're up to no good—so it's up to a super secret task force to put them in the slammer all over again. Don't forget, this show has J.J. Abrams' name on it, so there are all sorts of secret conspiracies, Michael Giacchino strings, and people staying the same age for decades.
Naturally, Alcatraz is being compared to Lost, and with Jorge Garcia (Hurley!) starring, the same composer doing the score, an island, and even the same logo font, the comparisons are correct on a very surface level. But please, for the love of all that is holy, DON'T compare Alcatraz to Lost. You'd be better off comparing Alcatraz to Fringe, another one of J.J.'s kids, because both follow the serialized procedural formula. However, if you want to be even more accurate and impress your friends, don't compare Alcatraz to Fringe, either. Compare the show to FlashForward, because after two episodes, Alcatraz has "uninspired knock-off" written all over it.
Of course, Fringe didn't get off to a great start, and now it's the best network sci-fi program by a longshot; the show is arguably better than Lost (hmmm... anyone up for a Fringe vs. Lost edition of TV.com Throwdown?). That's why Alcatraz is going to become a test of viewers' patience more than anything else. Will the end-of-episode reveals we saw last night be enough to entice the audience to come back every week? Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) was the young guard in the flashback? Big whoop. There's a secret super prison out in the woods? Okay, maybe we'll learn what it really is in Season 2. Lucy (a stoic Parminder Magra) in her '60s flashback looked exactly the same as she does today? Richard Alpert called, and he wants his shtick back.
The problem with Alcatraz so far (we're only one two-hour premiere in, so there's plenty of time to fix things) is that it siphons the formula of Abrams' predecessors without really adding anything new. It's like watching a magician repeat the same pull-the-rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick, but with different animals and different hats: Lost was the classic top hat and bunny, Alcatraz is a cowboy hat and a kitten. Is it time to start calling him J.J. Abrams-Shyamalan, after The Sixth Sense director who famously fizzled into one of Hollywood's biggest duds?
Fans of Lost and Fringe have seen all this before. Alcatraz shouldn't be looking to do the same thing as its predecessors, it should be looking to make a leap to what comes next. Instead, the show is trying to be mysterious for mystery's sake—the same misstep that plagued incredibly uncreative sci-fi flops The Event and FlashForward, which drew interest solely by playing the peekaboo game.
What made Lost and Fringe so watchable (and The Event and FlashForward so unwatchable) wasn't the sound of swelling violins or pre-credits psych-outs, it was something that all good television needs: compelling characters. So far, Alcatraz has none... except for the prisoner-of-the-week escapees it throws into the new super prison at the end of each episode. The pilot's POTW, Jack Sylvane, is actually the most developed character in the series so far, and his appearance in the second episode bodes well for the series. But what Alcatraz needs is an injection of personality for its central characters. Without good characters, all we're left to look forward to is the next "twist." And how surprising can a surprise be if you're actively looking for it?
I'll repeat this one more time, because we've seen plenty of shows hit their stride well after the pilot and it bears reinforcing: We're still in the fresh meat stage of our stay with Alcatraz, so getting an idea of how the show will be in the long haul is near impossible. But two hours into this new series, we've seen nothing that indicates the series will be more than another attempt to recapture the success of the past by copying it and adding enough procedural standalone elements to keep the network happy. If you're looking for a good serialized procedural with sci-fi elements, you'd be better off looking at recent shows that've already proved themselves, like Fringe, Person of Interest, and Alphas.
– There were LOTS of changes in the pilot from the advanced screener sent to critics back in May. There's clearly been an effort to expand the backstory of Rebecca (Sarah Jones), but it still fell short.
– Geez, how many times can you say "Alcatraz" or "The Rock" in one episode?
– "This is Alcatraz. No one forgets." Groan! Way too much clichéd dialogue.
– If we're supposed to be scared of these prisoners-of-the-week, I'm going to need something more than a guy who shoots girls because his mommy paid more attention to his sister.
– How long will you give the show before you make a decision on whether to keep watching? I'll be watching for at least four episodes...
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom