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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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