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TV Review: Alcatraz Should Never Have Been Freed

ALCATRAZ: Doc (Jorge Garcia) offers some advise in the two-hour premiere "Pilot/Ernest Cobb" episode of ALCATRAZ debuting Monday, Jan. 16 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) and making its time period premiere on Monday, Jan. 23 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: James Dittiger/FOX Jorge Garcia on Alcatraz.

What if the prisoners of Alcatraz all mysteriously disappeared when the prison closed in 1963 and then started reappearing in the year 2012? And what if they hadn't aged a day and were set on finishing unfinished business, settling old grudges and the like? If that sounds fascinating to you, then you’ll probably give the new J.J. Abrams–produced series Alcatraz (Fox, Mondays 8 p.m.) more of the benefit of the doubt than I did. I found tonight’s two-hour premiere so listless that I’m having a hard time mustering the energy to pan it. And the second episode is only a slight improvement. My fascination with the real prison probably has at least something to do with my resistance. The place has such a rich history — one that has already been alluded to in such films as Birdman of Alcatraz and Escape From Alcatraz — that I’m not yet convinced that it should be reduced to a mere backdrop for sci-fi mythologizing by remnants of the Lost writers room and cast. But we’ll see.

Sarah Jones stars as San Francisco police Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), who finds a fingerprint at a murder scene that belongs to Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce), an Alcatraz prisoner who died a long time ago. Lost co-star Jorge Garcia plays the buddy she’s teamed up with: Dr. Diego "Doc" Soto, an Alcatraz expert and comic-book aficionado. As she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, she’s aided by scientist Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra) and by her surrogate uncle Ray (Robert Forster, charming but underused). She's also hindered by a sinister government agent named Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, doing his Wasp Satan thing), who promises revelations but delivers mostly red herrings and warnings. Sarah’s family has deep roots in Alcatraz — both Ray and her grandfather were guards there. There are hints that the show might meld science fiction and mystery with ghost-story elements; the time-tripping prisoners are trying to avenge past sins or otherwise rebalance the cosmic scales. I’m sure it will take four or five years for us to find out, but only if Alcatraz can get through this season without driving even its most dogged partisans into a funk, as Fox’s promising but infuriatingly mediocre Terra Nova did last fall.

Created by Steven Lilien, Bryan Wyndbrandt, and Elizabeth Sarnoff, the show is clearly trying to split the difference between long-form serial storytelling and weekly one-off stories that might engage casual viewers. But the characters are so TV cute (and in some cases TV pretty) and the storytelling so mechanical, that I couldn’t give myself over to it either way. And considering that I usually have a soft spot for time-travel stories — I’m the only person I know who saw the horrible The Final Countdown twice in a theater — that’s saying something. Garcia, by far the show’s main draw, is given little to do here except play the Comic-Con fanboy stand-in. And the score, credited to Andrea Datzman and the normally superb Michael Giacchino (Lost, The Incredibles), is the worst sort of hysterical, faux–Bernard Herrmann dreck, forever exclaiming, “Isn’t this all magical and thrilling? Can’t you just feel your heart pounding?” Actually, no.

Photo: James Dittiger/FOX