The broken past of Alcatraz

This past week, Fox premiered Alcatraz – the new J.J. Abrams series – with a double episode evening.

The show is structured like a procedural crime drama, with some thriller aspects, and a big mystery feel reminiscent of LOST, which is no surprise considering Abrams’ involvement.

The basic premise of the show is that all of the prisoners who were supposedly transferred out of the famous prison when it closed were actually transported years into the future – and have begun appearing in our timeline.

A special team which consists of a former Alcatraz guard, a newly transferred FBI agent, and an Alcatraz hobbyist, have to figure out what they’re up to and why they’re here –  and stop them before they hurt too many people. To do this, they investigate the original crimes and former lives of the inmates.

Of course, the big-mystery theme is not new, as we saw it most popularly used in LOST, the show which sparked the glut of big-mystery series currently on TV. Still, what’s particularly interesting here is that Abrams decided to tie the mystery in so closely with an actual historical location.

So far, the fantastic elements are a bit weak. There are time-traveling prison inmates, but the time-traveling itself doesn’t seem to be a major focus of the show, and the characters are more worried about why and who than how. The cases are treated more emotionally and psychologically than socially, as we would expect in a science fiction procedural – like Fringe for example. Despite this the characters have a core unfeeling for the victims and tragedies, which is more like a science fiction.

The combination isn’t bad, just strange, and at times a bit inconsistent. The characters have feelings, but only when it’s convenient to the plot.

This quirkiness aside, the cases are interesting, and the over-arching mystery is compelling. Like LOST before it, the main draw for most of the audience is going to be the solution of the mystery. Even if we don’t like the characters, and even if each case is not fun to solve, we’ll keep coming back each week to see what’s going to be revealed next, and which new questions will arise. Tying it in with a real-world mysterious location is just icing, and will likely increase the range of the audience to which the show appeals (a lesson Fox learned from Fringe, which, while an outstanding show, really only fully appeals to the sci-fi fan).

A sci-fi nut watching Alcatraz may discover that it leaves a little something to be desired, but overall, it’s a well-written, well-played story, which I have a feeling will be around for quite a while.

The third episode of Alcatraz will run on Fox on 23 January 2012 at 9EST. If you need to catch up, the first two episodes are on Hulu.