Like the J.J. Abrams-produced “Fringe” and “Person of Interest,” “Alcatraz” concocts a fantastic premise with a dense mythology that essentially creates a procedural — namely, rounding up a couple hundred long-missing inmates, which in theory (and in success) could potentially keep Fox in episodes until 2020 or so. Yet while the premiere deftly teases those possibilities, the show proves flawed on key levels, beginning with another TV detective who appears to have only recently graduated high school. The pilot’s not bad, but offers at best marginal incentive to invest much more time in this piece of the Rock.
The series opens with a prologue set in 1963, as guards arrive at Alcatraz to find everyone at the prison known as “the Rock” has vanished. Flash forward to the present, and San Francisco detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, who had a recurring gig on “Sons of Anarchy”) is investigating a murder when a terse G-man, Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), bigfoots her off the case.
After clues connect the victim to Alcatraz, Rebecca seeks info from her uncle Ray (Robert Forster), a one-time guard there; and a professor, Diego Soto (“Lost’s” Jorge Garcia), who’s an expert regarding all things related to the famous prison.
Clearly, the show dangles several mysteries — foremost among them how these convicts are being unleashed, not a day older, onto the modern world; and who’s responsible for the time-warp. There are also flashbacks, illustrating what happened inside the prison decades ago.
As presented in the pilot, though, much of that feels like an excuse to conduct weekly manhunts for the wayward prisoners, with Garcia providing comic relief and a steely Neill delivering tantalizing tidbits — he obviously knows a lot more than he’s divulging — that invariably sound like lightning should be going off behind him.
That leaves Jones, who simply doesn’t possess enough heft, initially anyway, to carry the show. Ditto for the customary crack team working under Hauser, including “ER’s” Parminder Nagra, which doesn’t contribute much in the two-part premiere.
Although there’s no shortage of romance surrounding Alcatraz — and the idea of hardened criminals becoming dangerous anachronisms is a time-worn concept — there’s a nagging sense these are just going to be (very) cold cases, which will grow tedious without something more, and quickly, to fuel the larger mystery.
Because of the strong ocean currents, Alcatraz was said to be escape-proof (the movie “Escape From Alcatraz” leaves the question dangling), as well as virtually impregnable.
But unless the show can overcome the aforementioned tides working against it, viewers won’t need to engage in any extraordinary measures to plot their own getaway.