Stop us if you’ve heard this before: “Alcatraz,” the latest series from executive producer J.J. Abrams, has an overarching story to tell, but its week-to-week structure is more like a crime procedural, so viewers won’t feel out of sorts if they miss an episode.
The easy comparison for “Alcatraz” is “Lost,” because it involves Abrams, an island, time travel and Jorge Garcia. But the way Abrams and Co. are selling the series — as a weekly procedural with some serialized elements — sounds an afwul lot like the pitch for “Fringe” when it debuted in 2008.
Now, “Fringe” became a better (if less-watched) show when it leaned more into its serialized elements and moved case-of-the-week stories to the back burner. And there are several appealing elements to “Alcatraz” that make us think there’s potential for growth. But the two episodes we’ve seen — and which make up Monday’s (Jan. 16) two-hour premiere on FOX — are of a show that still hasn’t quite figured out which way it wants to go.
“Alcatraz” posits that the official story of the infamous prison’s 1963 closure was a cover, and that what actually happened was that all the inmates and guards in the prison on March 21, 1963, disappeared without a trace. The criminals are somehow now coming back, not having aged a day since then, with the intent of finishing whatever bad business they had before they were sent to the Rock.
Into that scenario steps San Francisco Det. Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, “Big Love,” “Sons of Anarchy”), who catches a case in which the prison’s former assistant warden has been killed. The uncle who raised her (an underused Robert Forster) was a guard at Alcatraz, as was her grandfather (or so she believes).
Madsen quickly discovers that the chief suspect in the murder is Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce) — an inmate at Alcatraz who was supposedly transferred to San Quentin and died in 1976. After butting heads with Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), a federal agent who takes over the case, Rebecca enlists Dr. Diego Soto (Garcia), an Alcatraz expert, to help her run her own investigation.
Hauser doesn’t particularly like that — but soon enough Madsen and Soto are part of his super-secret team, which is tracking the return of the lost inmates and trying to bring them back to justice.
After a particularly frustrating turn of events, Madsen lashes out at Soto, saying “If i knew how they got here or what they want …” — and that may be how viewers end up feeling after the first two episodes as well. Hauser and his associate, Lucy Banerjee (“ER” veteran Parminder Nagra), seem to have been prepared for this turn of events, but if they know anything about how or why it’s happening, they certainly aren’t letting on.
We wouldn’t expect the show to reveal the nature of its big mystery up front, but even some basic questions go unanswered in the first two hours. A couple of scenes suggest that some inmates have already made the journey to the present, but it’s not at all clear how many of them have. Nor is there even a suggestion as to how they’re deposited in the present: We first meet Sylvane when a girl on the Alcatraz tour finds him in an off-limits area, but the second episode’s bad guy seems already to have assimilated himself in 2012 San Francisco.
The procedural aspect of “Alcatraz” is pretty standard-issue, but we do very much like the unconventional partnership between Madsen and Soto. Jones and Garcia have an easy rapport with one another, and they’re the rare male-female crime-solving duo where romantic tension is not really on the table. It’s kind of refreshing, actually, and it allows us to view Madsen’s sympathy for Soto being thrown into this world in a different light.
“Alcatraz” also went through some creative shakeups early in its life, re-working parts of the pilot (mostly to the good) and going through some changes behind the scenes as well. That probably won’t help with any growing pains. There’s enough in the premise and the performances (particularly those of Garcia and Neill) to keep us watching, but to really hook us in “Alcatraz” needs to decide what kind of show it wants to be.
“Alcatraz” premieres at 8 p.m. ET Monday on FOX and moves to 9 p.m. on Jan. 23.