J.J. Abrams came to the TV critics press tour the other day to promote “Alcatraz,” his new sci-fi/crime drama that FOX is debuting tonight at 8. A reporter asked Abrams about how the show – in which 300 inmates who vanished from the famous prison in 1963 begin popping up in the present day to cause mayhem – might try to balance the Prisoner of the Week stories with ongoing storytelling about what exactly caused this bit of time-traveling wackiness.
Abrams responded with a story about watching an episode of his show “Alias” at a friend’s house and being confused by all the serialized stuff, and how he’s tried since then to make his shows more accessible to viewers who pop in and out…
… which another reporter reminded him was the exact same anecdote, and thesis statement, he made when presenting “Fringe” to us four years ago. That was a series that was also supposed to be easy to jump into, exciting whether dealing with the Monster of the Week or larger questions – only nobody much liked the “accessible” version of the show, and it only found itself creatively after embracing the weirdness of it all.
When I asked him a few press tours ago about that transition, Abrams told me that he and the other “Fringe” producers decided, “If we’re going to fail, let’s go down having done the most badass, weirdest, interesting, sophisticated version of a series we can possibly do.”
That’s a lesson that arguably should have been applied to “Alcatraz” from the start. The version that will debut tonight with back-to-back episodes isn’t bad, by any means – it’s better than, say, “Undercovers,” another of Abrams’ Keep It Simple, Stupid shows from a couple of seasons ago – but it’s much too generic given Abrams’ reputation from “Alias,” “Lost,” the better years of “Fringe” and the “Star Trek” reboot.
“Alcatraz” is, essentially, a formulaic police procedural in very mild sci-fi drag. The time travel creates the problems that San Francisco cop Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) has to solve with the help of comic book author and Alcatraz historian Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia), hostile federal agent Emerson Hauser (Saml Neill) and scientist Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra), but the two episodes I’ve seen might as well have been episodes of “Criminal Minds” with occasional flashbacks to 1960. The two criminals in these episodes pop up in 2012 (and don’t seem to suffer from any real culture shock) and start killing people, and Madsen and Soto have to dig through their files to figure out where they might go next. Simple stuff, and the bad guys aren”t all that compelling even with the show devoting a decent chunk of running time to showing what they were like 50+ years ago.
There are the larger questions of what caused these men’s disappearance and reappearance, and what Hauser and Banerjee aren’t telling Madsen and Soto, but so much emphasis is placed on the time-traveling fugitives that it’s difficult to invest in those ongoing arcs.
Jones is fine, if not much more, in the lead role. (She reminds me of Anna Torv in the early days of “Fringe”: believable as a cop, but not overly charismatic.) Garcia, who showed a lot of range over six seasons of “Lost,” is in the early going mostly asked to channel the most obvious everyman/fanboy aspects of Hurley. (Uncomfortable with seeing dead bodies, Soto complains to Madsen, “This isn’t the comic book world, is it?”) This is a grouchier side of Neill than we’re used to, but as keepers of the series’ secrets, he and Nagra mainly have to swap veiled, ominous-sounding dialogue that could be about anything.
By the time “Fringe” let its freak flag fly, it had already bled most of its initial audience, though there’s no way of knowing what the numbers would have been like had it started out dealing with parallel universes and such. (It could be that the tiny handful who watch it now are all that would have watched had it gone this way from the start.) The version of “Alcatraz” on display tonight isn’t special enough for me to bother with again. If Abrams and company once again realize they should have gotten weirder, sooner, maybe I’ll come back.
But I’d really like to see Abrams turn up at press tour one year with a show that’s fully-formed and unapologetic about what it’s about, rather than another one that tries to hedge its bets and make itself accessible to everyone while being memorable to almost no one.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com