The first thing everyone points out about FOX’s new series “Alcatraz”—and I guess I’m doing it, too—is that it’s another mysterious, island-based sci-fi series from producer J.J. Abrams (who gave us a little thing called “Lost”). Unless the guy announces he’s rebooting “Fantasy Island” next, I wouldn’t get too worked up about the man’s creative obsessions, though.
Other than a surrounding of water and actor Jorge Garcia (who played Hurley in “Lost”), “Alcatraz” and “Lost” don’t have too much in common. Whereas “Lost” was all sci-fi/supernatural wrapped in a thick skin of cosmic coincidence, “Alcatraz” is a straightforward crime-solving series with a weird backstory.
According to the official history, Alcatraz—San Francisco’s infamous prison—was closed in 1963 and all prisoners were transferred off the island. According to “Alcatraz,” that was just a ruse to cover up the fact that 600-something inmates and guards did a sudden vanishing act. Cut to 2012 and a ragtag team of investigators are tasked with finding these missing people. The weird part? They’re all showing up in modern-day San Fran looking just like they did back in 1963. What’s the dealio? Time travel? Black holes? Secret cloning experiments?
Heading this retro crime-solving team is “mysterious guy in suit” Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill). Turns out Emerson is a former prison guard, the first man to discover Alcatraz’ mass exodus. He’s been biding his time for 40 years, waiting for these criminals to reappear. To assist him, he’s recruited skeptical homicide detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, who looks and feels like Katee Sackhoff’s little sister) and Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto (Jorge Garcia). Doc is a multiple-Ph.D. genius, the world’s foremost authority on Alcatraz and the owner of a comic book store. Garcia’s character doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but he’s a charismatic actor. Hopefully, he’ll build something believable with what’s on the page.
Here’s how this works: Each week some long-lost prisoner from Alcatraz inexplicably reappears in San Francisco. He goes on a crime spree and our trio of clandestine detectives hunts him down. Every once in a while, we get flashbacks to the ’60s, giving us little hints about the mystery of what’s happening to these guys. So far, it seems to involve medical experiments and an evil warden. (Side note: Has there ever, in the history of film and television, been a prison warden who wasn’t evil?)
In its first few outings, “Alcatraz” feels like a decent, dark “crime of the week” series with cops hunting down snipers, child killers and other assorted baddies. The question is this, then: Am I watching this show because I like the weekly stories, or am I just sticking around to find out the “Big Mystery”? If it’s the latter, it’s not enough to keep me watching—especially if the mystery has to be stretched out over two, three, four or more seasons. “Lost” did a textbook job of balancing ongoing mystery with interesting characters and compelling storylines. “Alcatraz” needs to spend more time building solid characters and finding a way to integrate its “CSI:SVU” plots with its “time-traveling prison escape” flashbacks. Otherwise, this island vacation will end like NBC’s “The Event”—over before we ever learn WTF.