Alcatraz Review: A Show That Needs To Break Out Of Network-TV Prison

Every year, J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg put their names on a TV project or two. Is it time to start actively avoiding those shows?

On Monday, Jan. 16, Fox rolls out "Alcatraz" (8 p.m. EST), and the network has not wasted many opportunities to hype the participation of the "Lost" co-creator (Abrams is an executive producer on the time-travel drama, which was created by "Lost" writer Elizabeth Sarnoff -- who left the show last fall -- as well as Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt).

The problem with hyping Abrams and Spielberg's names is that doing so prompts pop culture fans to expect reasonably worthwhile examples of what those gentlemen do well. It gets our hopes up a little, despite the available evidence regarding what they're capable of when they're not on their A-game and/or phoning it in.

In the TV realm, I get the sense that phoning it in would be an improvement over whatever they're doing now. Time after time, we get watered-down, by-the-numbers renditions of those auteurs' greatest hits: "Terra Nova" and "Falling Skies" are only the latest examples of Spielberg's distressingly unimaginative TV collaborations. As for Abrams, he's lent his name to middle-of-the road, forgettable fare like "Person of Interest," "Undercovers" and "Six Degrees," using up almost all the geek cred he built up with "Alias," "Lost" and "Fringe" (and let's not forget, his involvement in the last two shows was limited, especially as his film career took off).

At their best, these men create works that unite sentiment and spectacle in wonderfully pleasing and surprisingly complex ways, but the bastardized versions of their visions are especially disappointing, because some of us still hope for better, despite having seen "Terra Nova" and "Undercovers." Honestly, I'd rather these men, whose finest work I truly love, stop putting their names on TV projects that tend to be so flat and disappointing. They're far too rich to need the paychecks, and they're tarnishing their own brands by not exerting better quality control over shows that are perceived, or at least marketed, as partly "theirs."

All of that is a roundabout way of saying that "Alcatraz" isn't bad, but it's not exactly brimming with the kind of engaging magic and memorable people that you want from a J.J. Abrams project. There's an island, time travel and a big, honking mystery at the heart of everything, but, despite the efforts of Jorge Garcia and Sam Neill, the characters barely register. With "Alcatraz," the clinical mechanics of the story appear to be taking center stage, and while I'll continue to watch (I can't not watch a show with Hurley), having been burned in the past, I'm not going to expend too much energy hoping the show will become more entrancing over time.

The first half of the two-hour pilot establishes the show's central mystery: In the early '60s, the entire population of the prison on Alcatraz Island -- guards and prisoners -- disappeared. The first hour moves along at a reasonable pace and introduces Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), the detective investigating a modern-day murder with ties to the prison. But the second half of the pilot is where problems really begin to emerge.

Garcia, who plays Dr. Diego Soto, a friendly Alcatraz expert, does what he can with the comic-relief material he's been given. But for a buddy-cop routine to work, there must be at least a little chemistry between the leads, and there's none between Garcia and Jones, who exhibits competent blandness as the duo chases another escaped Alcatraz prisoner. If the show is going to give us those two pursuing an inmate of the week as the prison mythology is slowly, bloodlessly built up around them, well, that might work if anyone on the screen were truly compelling. But there isn't a Sawyer, a Walter Bishop or a Felicity in the bunch.

It's all competently executed -- as I said, "Alcatraz" isn't outright bad -- but there's little to grab on to here. Neill's secretive lead investigator character is a little too enigmatic; he merely glowers, scowls and intimates that he knows a lot more than everyone else, which can be kind of irritating. The bigger problem is that Sarah Jones is no Gillian Anderson or Jennifer Garner, who were compelling central presences in shows about strange dilemmas. Jones throws off no heat and does not indicate any hidden depths; her character's family has ties to the prison, but I'd rather see more of Robert Forster, who plays her gruff uncle, than Rebecca herself.

When a show's characters don't have much resonance, I often find myself picking at the program's central premise as if it were a scab. (I did this with "Chuck" before the show's many distinct pleasures began making up for the shaky foundations it displayed at first.) I know that half the fun of this kind of show comes from the piecemeal reveals about the big mystery, but all of that feels a little too slow on "Alcatraz." We learn almost nothing about how the prisoners' disappearances and appearances are handled, and I found myself wondering how the authorities in the '60s covered up the sudden exits of not just the inmates, but the dozens of men guarding them. (Wouldn't their families and friends have missed them?) It's not as though having questions is a bad thing when it comes to a mystery like this, but some of my "Alcatraz" questions were about plot holes that began to loom larger the more I considered them.

I look at "Alcatraz" and I see a show that recalls the early days of another product of Abrams' TV factory -- this new Fox drama is a little like "Fringe," before it rejected bombast in favor of bittersweet knowledge, before it allowed itself to get weird and emotional and truly ambitious. Maybe "Alcatraz" will get less efficient and more emotionally effective over time -- one can only hope it will downplay the escapee-of-the-week plots in favor of stories about what it's like to be cut off, locked up and denied the kind of deep connections that Abrams usually muses about in his best work.

Fox probably wants "Alcatraz" to be a tidy little affair, with episodes that neatly wrap up at the end of every hour, but shouldn't a jail drama be about the long haul? "Alcatraz" feels like a show that needs to be released from a prison of its own making. We'll have to see if it somehow escapes network lockdown.

The two-hour premiere of "Alcatraz" airs on Mon., Jan. 16 at 8 p.m. EST on Fox.