Winter TV First Impression: J.J. Abrams Once Again Has Island Fever, With Fox's Alcatraz

The broadcast and major cable networks have nearly two dozen brand-new shows (hopefully) heating up primetime this winter. To help you sort through it all, TVLine, as we did in the fall, is presenting a few First Impressions. Next on our list is.…

THE SHOW | Fox’s Alcatraz (two-hour premiere airs Monday, Jan. 16 at 8/7c, before series settles into its Mondays-at-9 time slot)

THE COMPETITION | CBS’ sitcombo of Two and a Half Men/Mike & Molly, the second hours of NBC’s The Voice and ABC’s The Bachelor, The CW’s Hart of Dixie.

THE CAST | Sarah Jones (Sons of Anarchy), Jorge Garcia (Lost), Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Parminder Nagra (ER), Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) and others.

Hot for Winter: TVLine Presents Your January Premieres Calendar

THE SET-UP | Jones plays Rebecca Madsen, a San Francisco PD detective who, while investigating the murder of a onetime Alcatraz warden, discovers that the killer had been an inmate at “the Rock” — and that said suspect, Jack Sylvane, reportedly died decades earlier (!) but didn’t, and he hasn’t aged a day since 1963 (!!). Madsen enlists Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego Soto (Garcia) to delve further into the mystery, only to bump up against two federal agents, Emerson Hauser (Neill) and Dr. Lucy Banerjee (Nagra), who eventually disclose that Sylvane’s inexplicable return is likely the first of many Alcatraz “homecomings.”

Winter TV First Impression: Does NBC’s Smash Hit All the Right Notes?

THE GOOD | Not surprisingly, given executive producer J.J. Abrams’ imprimatur, the premise is innately interesting — that the 300+ inmates supposedly transferred off Alcatraz when it shut down (as well as guards on duty at the time) in fact vanished from the island prison, and now are returning, un-aged, to tend to “unfinished business” as well as execute random crimes ordered by… well, we don’t know who. Neill does enigmatic eyebrow-arching and stern stare-downs like few others, and it’s good to see TV’s erstwhile Hurley play someone so learned. Tweaks made since the original one-hour pilot have fleshed out Jones’ character some and given her a slightly stronger (if clunky) personal tie to the larger mythology. As Sylvane, Jeffrey Pierce (The Nine) is befuddled by his “rebirth” yet also effectively stone-cold, and this is a procedural that could live or die on the casting of its Fugitive of the Week. The flashbacks show a nice attention to detail.

THE… COULD-BE-BETTER | Forster, as Rebecca’s Uncle Ray (a former Alcatraz guard), brings weight to his blink-and-you-missed-’em scenes; hopefully he’ll get pulled deeper into the story. Nagra is similarly underused in the pilot. Jones’ character has big shoes to fill — namely, those of Dana Scully and Olivia Dunham — as a female agent immersed in otherworldly spookery, and at first blush she didn’t blow me away with her skills. And for the life of me, whereas Abrams’ Lost from Day 1 triggered numerous knee-jerk speculations (Hell, Heaven, human Petri dish…), I can’t fathom what could ultimately be revealed as at the heart of the Alcatraz inhabitants’ “disappearing/time-jumping/reappearing” act — and that makes me nervous. In other words, Lost had me compelled to find out more; Alcatraz left me merely curious-ish. If this island’s a cork, I fold.

Fox Midseason Sets Dates for Alcatraz, Finder, Returns of Kiefer Sutherland and Breaking In

THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE | Compared to Abrams’ other 2011-12 TV season offering, CBS’ Person of Interest (which also happens to star a Lost alum), Alcatraz is obviously trippier and thus should be noisier on the midseason landscape. That said, the decision to slot it behind the aging House and opposite one of TV’s most watched programs — a place where Fox’s Lie to Me and Lone Star, as well as other far-out fare like NBC’s The Event, all failed to seize big numbers — had to be a tricky one. The road here could be Rock-y.

Watch a video preview for Alcatraz, then vote in our poll below.

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  1. Donna says:

    A lot of the criticisms here could have easily been applied to Fringe in its early going. That show took a half season or more to get on track, and another entire season to completely reinvent itself into a show that has turned out to be astonishing and special.

    That’s why I’ll give Alcatraz the benefit of the doubt until it finds its legs. I’ll give it one season of my time.

    It could be that Alcatraz is intended to be the more conventional, episodic “case of the week” story that Fringe was originally intended to be. Fringe didn’t have much luck at being conventional and instead transformed itself into something wondrously different. Will audiences expect the same of Alcatraz? Will they be content with a slower pace, or will expectations be too high and audiences too impatient for Something Big in terms of mythology, like Lost or Fringe?

    • Danielle h says:

      I am one of the ppl that felt that Fringe in the first like season and a half was a great show and loved the “Fringe theory of the week” concept. When it gave way to an overly complicated myythology is when it went to pot. Won’t be checking out this show either though.

      • Donna says:

        Yes, I’m sure many will prefer to watch TWO AND A HALF IQ instead…

      • Ari says:

        I’m the opposite. I like the high concept, mythology driven shows. I LOVE a good complicated mythology. I like watching a show that makes me think, that makes me wonder what happens next. I hate that TV networks push single episode story arcs. It’s lame. I’m not sure if I’m going to watch this one though. I was in the disappointed in the ending of Lost camp and I feel kind of burned. Not sure if I want to get into a heavy mythology just to leave the mythology unsatisfying. I might catch up online after seeing the general reaction the audience is giving. Plus this is a Fox show and they are way too quick to pull the trigger on shows like this (or meddle in the way the show is run usually making it terrible).

        • Christy says:

          I think the problem with complicated mythologies is that they rarely play out well….ie: due to scheduling and rating uncertainties, writers and producers don’t know how long they have to keep the show going and wind up getting sidetracked either overextending the show or trying to wrap it quickly….then getting a pickup and trying to keep it going. I think JJ Abrams has some fantastically original ideas, but my impression is that he’s a big ideas guy and perhaps not the most organized? I ditched both alias and lost after 1-2 seasons and fringe as well after 3….and since three’s a charm i am pretty tentative on this one. Would hate to invest my time emotionally only for the inevitable letdown because the big picture falls apart.

        • Jennifer says:

          I totally concur!! I have been so bored with TV for so long because nothing on TV engages your mind UNTIL Fringe! Fringe is the most unpredictable, amazingly brilliant show I have ever seen! I absolutely love the way you have to pay attention to EVERYTHING to find pieces to the pattern. Things in the background & the things they are saying & how they say it because that can even be a clue that ends up making sense a few episodes later! And you HAVE to watch each episode twice because the 1st time you get the story they are telling & the 2nd is when you are able to pull out the clues. Anyone that doesn’t like this show & does not find it brilliant, must not like to be challenged & likes to stick to the predictable stuff so they don’t have to think about whats happening, because they will pretty much end up telling you at the end.

      • Page 48 says:

        Well, that’s just bass ackwards. “Fringe” blew dead monkeys for the first 1.5 seasons with it’s relentless and repetitive FOTW formula, and writers didn’t seem to smarten up until midway thru S2.

  2. cj says:

    uh oh. just watched the trailer and i already have complicated ideas about what could be happening. i’m a sucker for JJ Abrams. and sci-fi. so unless its terribly horrific (which it doesnt sound like) i’ll probably be hanging on every episode.

  3. John Grose says:

    I’ll give Alcatraz the benefit of the doubt, too, but as I won’t watch new shows on FOX, I’ll wait until it’s out on DVD. If it got thumbs up, I’ll give it a try. – John

  4. Christina says:

    I’ll definitely tune in but it’s time slot is a killer for me. I wont be missing Hart of Dixie, and I plan on watching The Voice, so this might be resigned to online viewing.

  5. kevin says:

    Can’t wait for ALCATRAZ. Although I’ll be tuning for the two-hour premiere on January 16th and new episodes January 23rd and 30th while I’ll be switching over to watch THE VOICE on February 6th the night after the Super Bowl and see more of this show On Demand the day after it airs. Wonder if Sarah Jones be stepping in the shadows of a slew of J.J. Abrams’ girls club: Jennifer Garner of ALIAS, Evangeline Lilly of LOST and Anna Torv of FRINGE.

  6. Sheldon W. says:

    I’ve only seen the pilot [the first half of the two-hour premiere and am largely in agreement with your call, but I think that the second hour will flesh out Forster and Nagra’s characters to a point where we’ll have a better idea of how they fit into the overall story.

    My only real beef with the pilot is that it’s much more of an info dump than we usually get from a Bad Robot production – but considering the concept, it’s probably best that we learn as much as we do in the first hour. I didn’t even mind Rebecca’s ‘clunky’ connection to The Rock [I think it gives her a strong emotional tie to the investigation that will pay dividends as the series progresses].

    I like Jones more than you do [or at least was more impressed with her – not necessarily the same thing] and agree that it’s nice to see Garcia playing a really brilliant character instead of a Hurley clone [he’s done that, so good for Abrams & Co. for letting him stretch a bit!].

    Neill has the same kind of presence as Hugo Weaving – whether the good guy or the bad guy, they’re always giving us characters with a lot of different shadings. If I had to bet, I’d say that Hauser has a darker side than many of the reappearing inmates we’ll be encountering. He might even turn out to be rather villainous [the old ‘it takes a thief to catch a thief’ thing] – that’s just the kind of shading I’m talking about.

    Personally, I’m really intrigued by the pilot and am more than curious-ish to see what happens next [though I think Personal Best may still be the better show]. I just wish it wasn’t scheduled where it is. Some really good shows have died in that timeslot.

    • Emily says:

      I always bought Anna Torv as an FBI agent, whether or not Olivia Dunham was a good character in the beginning or not. I didn’t buy Sarah Jones as a police detective in this pilot, and unless that changes, it will be hard to draw me in. I AM intrigued by Hauser. I love a good (potential) Ben Linus. But I probably won’t watch this unless there’s great buzz after at least six episodes.

  7. Lily says:

    I saw the first episode on a plane in December, it was AWESOME!! As a MERLIN fan (not the best quality show but still cute) it was nice to see Santiago!

  8. Rachel says:

    I think Being Human is on in this timeslot, too, and while it’s only on cable (so no huge competition) I, for one, will be watching that. I may DVR this, but I may not. I suppose the first episode, and then we’ll see.

  9. Renee says:

    I don’t know Sarah Jones she may be an amazing actress, but my very first thought was Clea DuVall would be great as the lead actress in this.

  10. Hiccup says:

    I am so there! Can’t wait for this one!

  11. Jules says:

    Sometimes “OLD” better than New!!
    Like wines-I prefer having/watching[H]ouse,my favorite addiction back at his original time slot(since ssn4)leading Alcatraz..
    Plus, less painful to wait (like stupid TeraNova with a boring cast/dialogue+cheesy dinosaurs)
    And Alcatraz storylines+Sam Neill look Monday’s night will be GREAT

  12. Handsome Smitty says:

    Another probable fail, so why buy in? Tired of the Nets cutting shows off at the knees based on viewership instead of loyalty when the anemic numbers for all shows continue to drop. They heyday of 30 share has long passed with the decline of Idol, and now the days of 20s share has been given up on. Anything above a 10 share is considered a hit while shows between five and ten shares survive or die with no discernible criteria.

    The problem I foresee with this show, like Fringe, is easy to pinpoint: female lead. Learn from Person of Interest (which suffers a bit lacking amstronge female support role) and more so from Five-O and finally, Lost itself! Jack as clearly the lead, and Sawyer contesting for Kate ALONG with the intriqing, complex backdrop, was its reason for success. We not only wanted the answer to the Island mystery, but to Jack and the other charecters’ outcomes. In the end Kack was proven to be the core of the story all along.

  13. Sable says:

    I will be certainly watching Alcatraz. Though there is little I ever watch on Fox, Fringe being the one show I won’t miss on that network, neither do I watch any of the shows listed under competition. I lost my last bit of respect for Fox’s decision makers when they canceled Firefly, but I will check out anything I think shows promise that is not a reality show. Fox tends to cancel quality shows and retain mindless drivel.

  14. HarmonyMom says:

    I’m reluctant to invest my time in a Fox/Abrams long-arc show, until I see what happens to Fringe. If Fox cancels Fringe after I spent all these seasons watching, I know I shouldn’t get attached to Alcatraz.

  15. Katy says:

    I’m looking forward to it, huge fan of JJ – my top 10 faver tv shows of all time, include Alias (easily in the top 5), Lost and Fringe, so this is defo something i’ll be checking out. I love a complex, complicated mythic show that challenges you and makes you use your brain. i’m not saying i don’t watch fluff, cuz i do watch no brainers, too, but i get miore exciting about the “grown up” shows haha (hope that makes sense, not trying to be rude or anything! lol). Won’t pass judgement on a show until I have watched a few episodes – teh firsdt 11 episodes of Alias i found really boring upon first viewing and then i dunno what happened, i watched episode 12 and it was like WHAM! unmissable! so if i fancy the look of a new show, i always watch it’s entire first run before giving up on it, if it’s not hooked me by then, then i let it go.

  16. stella says:

    LOVE Lost. LOVE Fringe. WHen I heard about Alcatraz I knew it was a must-see especally with jorge and sam neill in it, i love Jurassic Park too. I’ve been enjoying Person of Interest too.

    J.J. is becoming a very well known name in the sci-fi tv and movie busines, 90% of the time I love his stuff.

    Can’t wait for the Alcatraz premiere!!

  17. GeekGirl13 says:

    I’ll be watching, if only cause I miss having Jorge Garcia on my tv screen.

  18. Tawny Cat says:

    Why do all the good shows have to be on Mondays and Sundays? I can’t watch this because of The Voice and The Bachelor.