At Comic Con I was afforded the opportunity to watch the Alcatraz pilot not once but twice. Warner Bros. held a screening on preview night, and then during Comic Con proper I sat through the screening plus panel featuring the show’s stars Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia, showrunner/writer Liz Sarnoff, and director Jack Bender. Here are my initial thoughts:
Alcatraz is from J.J. Abrams; the ending credits begin with the Bad Robot squeal. It takes place on an Island. It’s overtly mysterious. It makes use of flashbacks and a loud sound like closing prison doors clanks before and after each time jump. It stars Jorge Garcia, known to most heavy TV viewers as Hurley Reyes. It is extremely hard not to compare this show with Lost. The plot elements and even the behind-the-scenes pedigree (Sarnoff and Bender wrote and directed pivotal Lost episodes, respectively) radiate elements from the arguably the greatest mystery piece of our generation. At the panel, Sarnoff admitted that they’re “embracing Lost similarities” but at the same time “we’re our own show, we want to do our own thing.”
So how did their “own thing” work in the pilot? Pretty well, actually. By no means is this pilot grander than what Abrams directed for Lost back in 2004. That said, it still managed to pique my interest enough to have me recommend others to tune in when it premieres midseason (Sarnoff confirmed it’ll begin its run in January). I am not going to recap the entire episode; I think it’s best for you to watch the mystery unfold when the episode airs. However, I will reveal that the pilot generates a ton of mythology from the get-go and hopes that bits of it (if not all of it) sticks and pulls you in so that you’ll tune in again the following week. The pilot introduces a story where Alcatraz inmates disappear from their cells in 1963 and mysteriously reappear in modern day society. Sam Neill (Twin Peaks) plays Emerson Hauser, a man who heads a secret task force with Parminder Nagra (ER) aiming to figure out exactly why the inmates are coming back and who’s pulling the strings to make it happen. Strong female lead (J.J. knows how to find them) Sarah Jones is Rebecca Madsen; she teams with Jorge Garcia’s Dr. Diego Soto (an Alcatraz expert) to investigate the disappearances and reappearances. Eventually they get caught up in the middle of Neill’s long on-going investigation and they agree to help Neill and Nagra forge onward. That’s essentially what’s set up in the pilot. Sarnoff explained that the show will act like a procedural (there’ll be an “inmate of the week” that wrecks havoc in present day) with serialized elements (flashbacks will explore Alcatraz history and slowly reveal the mystery behind the reappearance of the inmates). My hope is that the inmates, especially the one featured in the pilot (Jack Sylvane played by the suave and sophisticated Jeffrey Pierce), are factored into the story more than I think they will be. Without spoiling the pilot’s conclusion, I will say that it seems like we won’t be seeing Sylvane in the present all that often (and no, he doesn’t get killed).
I can’t reiterate this enough: comparisons to Lost will be made when Alcatraz premieres early next year. Thing is, the core audience that’ll give Alcatraz a try are coming from Lost and they want a show that can compete with that great achievement in TV history. Like almost all genre shows, if Alcatraz wants to succeed and step out of the shadow of Lost it’ll have to balance plot mythology with deep character exploration. Sarnoff need only look at another Abrams show Fringe for an idea on how to do that. If the promising and intriguing Alcatraz manages not to get lost in confusing mythos (no pun intended) and puts character development and relationships first, I have high hopes that it’ll shine as the next great genre story that network TV has been desperately trying to tell once more.
Stills from the panel hang below.