Culture > Television
Justin Stephens/FOX

Another mystery island

Television | As with Lost, J.J. Abrams has the makings of a big hit with Alcatraz

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

The team that made Lost one of the hottest topics around watercoolers for six years is batting 1.000 since the iconic show went off the air in May 2010. First, two of its executive producers scored the season's highest-rated new drama with ABC's Once Upon a Time. Now creator J.J. Abrams and several other Lost alums have delivered silver medal honors to FOX with Alcatraz, which is tied with Revenge as 2011-2012's second-most-watched new drama.

In the first three episodes screened for this review, Alcatraz, airing Monday nights on FOX, is much darker in tone than ABC's fairytale-based show and much more procedural than either it or the other island-based hit that preceded it. After her partner is killed in pursuit of a suspect, Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) is called out to investigate the murder of a retired FBI agent. Good news, she finds a fingerprint. Bad news, the print belongs to a former inmate of Alcatraz who, according to police records, has been dead for more than 30 years.

Though federal agents quickly move in to take over her case, Rebecca refuses to let go. She tracks down the foremost expert on Alcatraz, comic book and history geek extraordinaire Dr. Diego Soto (Lost's delightful Jorge Garcia), and enlists his help to unravel the mystery. They discover that not only is the owner of the print not dead, but he hasn't aged a day. When they stumble on a secret FBI research center in the bowels of the Rock, agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) and his partner, Lucy (Parminder Nagra), let them in on the real secret-more than 300 men disappeared from Alcatraz in 1963, and a team of FBI agents has been watching and waiting for them to return ever since.

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Obviously, with a premise like this, somewhat violent and frightening images pop up, if not often, then at least enough to make it an inappropriate choice for the whole family. And, as is pretty much the case with every drama on network primetime, minor profanities sully the dialogue like seagulls sully the coastal landscape. But unlike many other cop-based shows, this one (at least for now) doesn't seem interested in exploring the sex lives of its characters, and instead follows the thread of the mystery it sets out in its pilot.

For viewers who found Lost and the many imitators it spawned too fantastical and self-referencing to get involved with, Alcatraz offers something of a lower-octane option. The basis of each episode is standard cop-show formula-Det. Madsen and her geeky sidekick track and capture an escaped convict before he can commit another crime. But the overarching storyline is filled with enough of the supernatural to hold the attention of those who prefer their cast threatened by the occasional smoke monster.

Besides varying doses of magical realism and mystery, the one thing that links all the shows together is that none of the characters is involved in the story by accident. In Lost's finale, this theme was writ large with the final meeting in the church, and in Once Upon a Time it is the very crux of the plot-when will everyone shake off the queen's evil spell and figure out who they really are and what their true purpose is?

Though the seeds are barely sprouting, the same theme is already evident in Alcatraz. It turns out that Rebecca's stumbling into the FBI's case wasn't as inadvertent as she first believed. And events in Dr. Soto's childhood may explain why he became so fixated on the prison and why it is so fortuitous he is suddenly available to help Rebecca in her work.

This last may best explain the secret to the Lost team's success with their new ventures. Whatever the setting and whoever the characters, they seem to understand innately that we all want to believe we're part of a bigger plan.

Listen to Megan Basham discuss Alcatraz on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Charlotte, N.C. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.


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