This week in the US saw the premiere of Alcatraz, a new series from some of the team behind Lost which will be coming to Watch later this year. And it’s not just the credits for executive producer J.J. Abrams, director Jack Bender and writer Elizabeth Sarnoff that link the series. In the first episode, as Jorge “Hurley” Garcia talks about “the island” while Michael Giacchino’s soaring score plays in the background, you could be forgiven for thinking we’d flashed back in time a couple of years.
Incidentally, time travel of some form plays an important part in this show. We start by being told that while we think the prisoners and guards of Alcatraz moved elsewhere when it shut down in the 1960s, some of them disappeared. Garcia plays Dr. Diego Soto, a comic book writer and expert on the infamous prison who is basically the same character as Hurley – loveable, geeky and the only person able to see the absurdities of what’s going on from the audience’s point of view. He’s recruited by Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), a San Francisco cop investigating a murder by an ex-inmate and they both stumble across a secret FBI operation being run by Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, yes, from off of Jurassic Park) and Lucy Banerjee (ER’s Parminder Nagra). It seems that the prisoners are starting to reappear fifty years after they were last seen, looking no older than they did then, and Hauser is attempting to round them up before they start getting up to their old criminal ways.
The format has been very carefully constructed so that fans of Lost’s mysteries have a puzzle that will slowly unravel throughout the series, while those people who prefer to jump in and out of the show will have a self-contained story in each episode, as every week the team go after a different prisoner. So, one week you have a sniper on the loose, the next it’s a child abductor who needs to be tracked down. Throughout each episode are flashbacks to the 1960s, as we discover from their time on the Rock what motivates the criminal-of-the-week as well as sometimes getting a step closer to discovering who brought them to the present day, how and why.
Now, it certainly isn’t a bad show and it’s a joy to see Jorge Garcia back on the screen (who doesn’t love Hurley?) but the first couple of episodes didn’t grab me as being particularly outstanding. There are a few things that especially bugged me, such as the way the prisoners seem utterly unperturbed by the changes in technology over the last half century (although this admittedly might be partially explained at some point) and the fact that Rebecca and her team seem to be able to turn up at a crime scene and be sure that it must be the work of another Alcatraz prisoner, as if there are no present-day criminals around.
It also remains to be seen how well the balance between the series-long arcs and stand-alone stories will work. There’s still a chance that people who infrequently dip in and out of the show could get confused by the ongoing time travel plots while, speaking as someone who is more intrigued by watching the overall mythology of the show unfold, I can imagine that the focus on the hunt for a different criminal each week might soon get tiresome for someone like me. Besides, if I wanted to see a Lost-related police procedural, I’d have preferred a spin-off featuring Saywer and Miles as a good cop/bad cop, or Locke and Ben setting up some sort of paranormal detective agency.
It’s still worth a look, though, and as a lighter mix of action, sleuthing and sci-fi mystery it’s better than a lot of other shows out there.