Sam Neill, from right, Jorge Garcia (obscured) and Sarah Jones of "Alcatraz." (James Dittiger / Fox )
In many ways, the scene on a cold and rainy day in Tsawwassen, Canada, looked like your run-of-the-mill murder. There was a trio of detectives who had arrived in a vintage forest-green Mustang. There was a dead body, of course. And the cops were after the usual suspects.
Except these suspects were from a half-century ago — and all were inmates in one of America's most notorious prisons. The scenario seems puzzling until you realize that it's a story line in J.J. Abrams' new midseason show "Alcatraz," which is set to premiere Jan. 16 on Fox.
The series' premise is that a group of Alcatraz prisoners who were supposedly dead have somehow returned to modern day and are wreaking havoc on the streets of San Francisco. It's not the first time Hollywood has taken a stab at storytelling centered upon the infamous Bay Area prison, which once housed such notorious criminals as Al Capone and George "Machine Gun" Kelly. Movies like "The Rock" and "Escape From Alcatraz" have set their dramas at the prison, but none have offered it as a TV series with a sci-fi twist.
"As soon as I was pitched the idea, I was desperate to make it happen," said Abrams, one of the creators of "Lost," in a telephone interview. "How could there have never been a show called 'Alcatraz'?"
At the forefront of halting the influx of time-traveling bad guys is Det. Rebecca Madsen, a stubborn yet thorough San Francisco homicide investigator played by relative newcomer Sarah Jones. In the pilot, Jones' character discovers that the fingerprints of a prime murder suspect belong to a reportedly deceased former Alcatraz inmate.
Confused and suspicious, Madsen reaches out to Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego Soto (played by Jorge Garcia, also from "Lost"), an author and comic-book store owner. When Madsen and Soto take a field trip seeking answers, they're confronted by Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), a mysterious government agent in charge of a special task force dedicated to catching 302 missing inmates and guards.
"Hauser is lethal, bad and dangerous to know," said Neill, memorable for film roles in "Jurassic Park," "The Hunt For Red October" and "The Piano."
So is Hauser a good or bad guy? "I'm not going to tell you because he's both of those things," Neill said. "Depends on where you are on the map on that day and where your moral compass is."
Garcia is a favorite of Abrams. Possibly most famous for playing Hurley on "Lost," Garcia was the first actor cast in the new series. "He can do almost anything, he's got this amazing, wonderful range," Abrams said. "He can play heartbroken and heroic and funny and stunned."
Garcia isn't the only "Lost" alum on the set — Abrams brought back director and producer Jack Bender for the show as well.
"When I was a kid growing up, Alcatraz almost had this Edgar Allan Poe vibe to it — you knew that it was this scary, scary place," said Bender from the British Columbia set.
Between its time-travel story line and so many "Lost" veterans in the mix, comparisons to the ABC hit show are inevitable. But Garcia scoffed at those suggestions.
"I don't know anyone who would think it's the same show aside from how much Doc Soto looks like someone from 'Lost,'" he joked.
"In terms of a specific story line, they couldn't be more different," Abrams said. "It's not a show that's about the science fiction of time travel."
Though the cast and crew maintain "Alcatraz" is not "Lost 2.0," they would certainly like to duplicate the success of "Lost," which drew in an average 15.7 million viewers its inaugural season and garnered 11 Emmys during the show's six-year run.
Sci-fi has traditionally had a tough time attracting a large mainstream TV audience. Newcomer "Terra Nova" performed slightly above average this fall, and its future with Fox is unclear. Meanwhile, Abrams' "Fringe," also on Fox, has struggled to maintain its audience. Also working against science-fiction programs are the scope of the productions, which in the case of "Terra Nova" anyway have been enormous thanks in no small part to its numerous special effects.
But Abrams believes that if the story works, the audience will be there.
"I think, frankly, the challenges of sci-fi are the same challenges in any genre," Abrams said. "You want to make sure you're doing something that is compelling and worth people's time. Because no science-fiction premise means anything if you don't love the characters in the center."