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

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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