January 17, 2012

TV: Alcatraz (Fox, Mon 9)

The premise is irresistible. The closing of the prison on Alcatraz in 1963 had nothing to do with budget cuts, but was caused by the mysterious disappearance of the 302 men (prisoners and guards) who were there at the time. Now, 50 years later, they've started reappearing in San Francisco, seemingly no older than when they vanished.

Their appearances are being investigated by a four-member team. Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) is the federal agent who won't answer anyone else's questions; he's assisted by Lucy (Parminder Nagra). Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) is the San Francisco cop who's brought into the operation, and who has her own family connections to Alcatraz; her fellow newbie on the team is Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, essentially reprising his Lost role as Hurley, with a little bit of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy thrown in), a local Alcatraz scholar, with the careers, crimes, and MOs of every prisoner at his fingertips.

(Is it just me, or does this collection of characters/actors sound vaguely Fringe-like? Jones in the Anna Torv role of the pretty blonde cop; Garcia in the Joshua Jackson role of the ordinary guy caught up in the whole thing; Neill in the John Noble role of the old guy who knows more than he lets on; Nagra in the Jasika Nicole role of the smart/geeky/ethnic sidekick/assistant.)

As a weekly-bad-guy police procedural, the show's OK (it appears that the title of each episode will be the name of that week's returning criminal); Madsen and Soto are an appealing team (though Garcia's doing most of the work in terms of chemistry), and they do some reasonably clever detective work.

But in the long run, the show will succeed or fail on the pacing of the larger story. Where have the "63s" been for 50 years? Why haven't they aged? Who's behind this? And how much does Hauser know, anyway? J.J. Abrams' shows have, in the past, tended to flounder a bit at the beginning. It was a year or two before Fringe really settled into its alternate-universe mythology; Lost often seemed to be killing time until a firm end date was set for the show.

I felt like we got enough information in the first two hours to keep me interested. We learn about Hauser's and Madsen's connections to Alcatraz's past, and there's a terrific last-minute bombshell involving Lucy that raises both tantalizing questions and intriguing possibilities. Like most serialized shows, this could fall completely apart at any moment, but so far, I'm intrigued, and I'll keep my fingers crossed.

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