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Television review: 'Alcatraz' will lock you up

J.J. Abrams' 'Alcatraz,' starring Sam Neill, Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia, is among the best of the new midseason shows, but isn't rock solid yet.

January 16, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Parminder Nagra, left, and Jorge Garcia star in "Alcatraz" on Fox.
Parminder Nagra, left, and Jorge Garcia star in "Alcatraz"… (Fox )

Though not technically an onomatopoeia, as its origins are in the Spanish word for pelican, Alcatraz, with its standing-stones line of tough consonants, has an undeniably sinister sound. That it also famously names the iconic island prison turned national park rising from the frigid, forbidding waters of the San Francisco Bay only increases the shiver value.

So when Sam Neill, a man not short on shiver value himself, stares into the camera and says "Welcome to Alcatraz," you're certainly not going to argue with him. You're going to sit up straight, zip your lip and watch the darn show.

Not that it's a chore. Coming from the dark and stormy maelstrom that is the imagination of J.J. Abrams, "Alcatraz" exploits the built-in creepiness of the prison to great effect by suggesting that the final inmates were not in fact simply transferred out in 1963 when the government decided the facility was too expensive and decrepit. No, apparently they simply vanished one night, 256 of them along with 46 guards.

And now they're Coming Back.

Abrams is a writer who has, in the past, chosen mood over coherent story, with mixed results; if the first season of his "Fringe" had as strong a narrative sense as it does now, it probably would not be struggling so much in the ratings. Here he has both — mood galore and a premise strong enough to not only sire a great pilot but to sustain a solid series. The inmates vanish and then return, one by one, playing fast and loose not only with the fabric of time but with the criminal justice system — from the get-go, it's clear that some evil mastermind has gathered these souls to him (or her) and is now unleashing them on an unsuspecting world.

The first is discovered on Alcatraz, lying in a solitary confinement cell and, after the screams have died down, taken for a tourist. In reality, he is inmate 2024 or Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce), and he is confused but angry — in flashback we see his ill treatment at the hands of an oily warden who he eventually kills. First on the scene is homicide detective Rebecca Madsen (newcomer Sarah Jones), a tough-as-nails young cutie still mourning the death of her partner. She's quickly shoved off the case by federal agent Emerson Hauser (Neill) but not before she swipes a bit of evidence that includes Sylvane's fingerprint. Armed only with fierce determination and Google, she quickly puts two and two together and tracks down the premier Alcatraz expert, Diego "Doc" Soto ("Lost's" Jorge Garcia), who assures her that Sylvane has been dead for 30 years.

What? That's not possible!

But of course it is. After discovering some (barely) hidden room on Alcatraz, Madsen and Soto are taken into Hauser's confidence — certain members of the FBI have been waiting for years for the 302 vanished prisoners and guards to return and now it Has Begun. Will Madsen and Soto help? Of course they will.

All is not what it seems, of course, in ways intentional and un-. Neill, with his fallen angel smile, is never a standard good guy, and Rebecca's own uncle (Robert Forster), Alcatraz-guard-turned-bartender, clearly knows more than he's letting on. More confusing is the Sylvane character, portrayed at first as an Alcatrazian Jean Valjean. He is given sympathetic top notes — jailed for stealing food, he was transferred to the Rock after he killed another inmate who "got frisky in the shower" and there is heinously tormented by the warden — yet he ruthlessly mows down anyone in his post-return path just as if he had been not just time-traveled against his will but turned into a killing machine.

Any story revolving around a prison population has a sympathy problem — you must make them human but acknowledge the heinousness of their actions. More worrisome is whether Jones is quite up to the task. She is less than believable as an investigative savant; her meteoric rise is explained by the fact that, as a child, she read her uncle's files and "put Post-its where he should look" and thus helped him solve cases. Uh huh. Her chemistry with Garcia is good in a girl-detective way but watching her face off with Neill, you can't help but think she's been tossed into deep waters with sharks. Here's hoping she can swim.

Also at issue is the island itself. Shot as a romantic ruin, the Manderley of the U.S. prison system, it is the real star of the initial two hours (and if you haven't yet taken the tour, I recommend it highly). But unlike the jungle in "Lost" or the alternate universe of "Fringe," Alcatraz is a finite space and only so much action can, realistically, take place there, although flashbacks do lend a great deal of elasticity.

These are the concerns of one who has, perhaps, lost her heart too often to the warriors of the sci-fi/fantasy realm only to have it broken by narrative flailings. Undoubtedly "Alcatraz" is among the best the midseason has to offer, and though it may whip like the TARDIS through the outer reaches of time and believability, Abrams wisely included a procedural element to sustain it; Alcatraz is, after all, built upon a rock.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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