Alcatraz (Mondays at 9:00 on Fox)
It's been a great year for the Lost alum, with Adam Horowitz & Edward Kitsis's Once Upon a Time outperforming expectations over on ABC and now Elizabeth Sarnoff debuting Alcatraz on Fox. Here's a shot that finally lives up to some of the hype of the Lost legacy, more so than J.J. Abrams's past offerings (Fringe, Undercovers) or even than Once Upon a Time. There will never be another show like Lost, but the pilot of Alcatraz comes close to matching the mystery and excitement of that show's premiere.
On March 21, 1963 Alcatraz ceased operation and its inmates were transferred to other penetentiaries. Or so everyone was told. Hundreds of inmates and guards actually disappeared that day, their transfers and subsequent records forged to hide the fact that no one knew where they'd gone. In present day San Francisco, the finger prints of one of the supposedly dead inmates turns up at a murder scene. Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) begins the hunt for this prisoner, Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce), with the help of Alcatraz expert Diego "Doc" Soto (Jorge Garcia). She is stonewalled by a mysterious federal agent named Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), but she soon discovers he is working a special task force to bring in the reappearing Alcatraz inmates and stop them from committing more crimes in the present.
The first hour of Alcatraz's two-hour premiere was instantly gripping. A supernatural thriller disguised as a cop drama, a briskly-paced script from creators Elizabeth Sarnoff (Lost), Steven Lilien & Bryan Wynbrandt (Kyle XY) almost perfectly blends genres to create a fast-moving and never-boring setup that is intriguing and fascinating. The history of Alcatraz is interesting on its own, and it's nearly impossible not to be intrigued just by the place itself (isolated, private, dark, mysterious) and the myriad options available to telling the prisoners' stories. Add in the supernatural elements of the prisoners reappearing 50 years later looking exactly the same and you have a truly engrossing mystery. Just after the first two hours there were enough reveals to slake the audience's thirst for answers but still enough questions to bring them back as well: What are they doing here now? Where have they been? What's the connection between the prisoners and the present-day task force?
The only gripe I have with Alcatraz is the procedural element. Each week introduces a new prisoner, he commits a crime, and the search is on; if the first two episodes are any indication, he's then caught and returned to a modern-day state-of-the-art Alcatraz, where he will be collected along with the other "escaped" prisoners. The procedural element could get old quick, so I fear the writers don't fall into the trap of stagnant writing while they follow this formula.
While the performances are strong all around, the show belongs to Jorge Garcia, forever after remembered as Hurley from Lost. He brings a levity to an otherwise grim series, peppering the darkness with one-liners you can't help but smile at like, "Did anyone else's head just explode?" He's a charming presence and a welcome bit of humor in an otherwise gritty hour. Sam Neill is another standout performer, delivering his esoteric lines with appropriate creepiness and stoicism. His character, a federal agent with ties to The Rock's past, is the most interesting. For me, though, the best dramatic performance belongs to Jeffrey Pierce (The Nine) as escaped convict Jack Sylvane. He's equal parts heartbreaking in the 1960 flashbacks and frightening in the present day scenes. Pierce immediately makes us care about Sylvane, a murderer who would likely otherwise not elicit sympathy; but Pierce manages it, adding yet another layer to the series.
The pilot is beautifully done, featuring some gorgeous cinematography by David Stockton (Nikita) and stylish, flashy direction from Danny Cannon (Emmy nominee for CSI). Oscar winner Michael Giacchino's score is eerie and beautiful. Everything is a notch above standard television caliber, making the whole proceeding feel like an epic film rather than a TV show. It's grand in scope, in intention, and in content. I can't wait for next week's episode.