Fox’s ‘Alcatraz’: An enigma in a mystery in a riddle already unwrapped for you

January 15, 2012

Executive producer and geek god J.J. Abrams’s new puzzler drama “Alcatraz,” debuting Monday night on Fox, is in some ways an act of customer relations. Some of you said shows were getting too complicated, and, friends, the networks heard you. No more mysteries wrapped in riddles inside enigmas!

“Alcatraz” presents a mystery and almost straight away solves most of it. You say “Lost” was too finely sliced? Abrams and friends have sliced “Alcatraz” into very thick slabs and served them up on a big plate of obvious.

That’s good news for people in search of a fairly simple crime procedural with sci-fi overtones; bad news for those viewers ready to delve into a demanding saga — people belonging not only to “Lost’s” diaspora of fans, but also those who gamely opted in for head-scratchers like “The Event” and “FlashForward” and followed them all the way to cancellation.

It will be a shame if everything “Alcatraz” has in store is as cinchy as its pilot episode, because there’s a somewhat intriguing concept lurking behind its prison bars. It seems as though all the inmates and guards at San Francisco Bay’s notorious island penitentiary vanished into thin air on the eve of its closing in 1963. They didn’t escape; they just went poof . The government (or someone) covered it up.

Zoom ahead to 2012, and don’t fret — “Alcatraz” is extra dutiful about using title cards with dates as the action moves forward and backward, as if its makers (who’ve all done time, in more than one sense of the word, at “Lost,” “Fringe” and “Cold Case”) distrust our ability to follow along. Those missing Alcatraz inmates are popping up 49 years later on the hilly streets of San Francisco. They haven’t aged a day.

One such fellow, convicted of a post-
office hold-up, awakes in his solitary cell to find that his dank prison is a sunny tourist destination. He walks out easily, hops the boat from Alcatraz back to town and, with nary a symptom of future shock, sets about locating and exacting vengeance on the (now elderly) evil warden who tormented him.

After committing that murder, he then moves to other agenda items: Retrieve a large metal key from a safe and hunt down his brother, who married his ex-wife.

The escaped inmate’s crime spree intersects with the work of spunky homicide detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), who collects a fingerprint at the murder scene and finds a database match linking it to the Alcatraz inmate — which is odd, because he is reported to have died in 1976. Don’t blame me for telling you all this; “Alcatraz” has a way of spoiling its own surprises.

Madsen’s hunt leads her to renowned Alcatraz historian Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, the Comic-Con set’s beloved Hurley from “Lost”), who tells her of a secret stash of files kept in Alcatraz’s basement, which might provide some clues.

Shaggy-and-Daphne-like, the two take the next boat to the island, where they discover a team of federal agents working on a secret project in a hidden high-tech lair beneath the prison. Led by Emerson Hauser (played by the once and often still great Sam Neill), these agents are seeking to locate and apprehend each of the 300 or so men — including the guards — who disappeared from Alcatraz on that 1963 night.

“Alcatraz” isn’t stingy with any of this information or in divulging its characters’ complex backgrounds, which either comes across as too blunt or, more appealingly, reminds the viewer of a simpler TV era.

Though I’m sure the show’s writers can and will devise an array of surprises and twists if need be, the intent seems to be to mask predictability with the more soothing notion of familiarity. Soon enough, even the underlying twist seems evident — that the Alcatraz inmates are probably the good guys and the secret agents pursuing them so doggedly are the sinister ones. I hate to throw this out there, but maybe the prisoners are all dead? Alcatraz is purgatory? The government is the devil?

I reserve the right to be wrong about all of that. There is something to like in “Alcatraz’s” smooth momentum. The show has a spirit that comes through in spite of the flavorless cheese crumbles piled atop it. As Rebecca, Jones is an intriguing discovery, and Neill classes up the joint. But overall, the script has some of the sparkless blah that has plagued Fox’s other big-name sci-fi show this season, “Terra Nova.”

Hurley — I mean Jorge Garcia — is clearly here to cheer up the nerds. Garcia’s limitations as an actor are made unfortunately evident, and it’s not long before his lines are pure Hurley: “Is anyone else’s head exploding right now?” he deadpans.

The answer to that, alas, is no. Nobody watching “Alcatraz” will have their minds blown.

Alcatraz

(two hours) premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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