The Alcatraz sell, courtesy of Sam Neill's gravitas-thick introduction: "On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed. All the prisoners were transferred off the island...[dramatic pause]...only that's not what happened...[extremely dramatic pause]...not at all." Only that much is clear from the two-hour pilot's drawn-out opening, during which two guards discover the infamous prison's occupants' alleged vanishing act. From there, copious space-time jumps result in plots regularly juggling between past and present-day San Francisco, where the prisoners are respectively locked up and running amok.
Every episode, it seems, will deal with the hunt for an escaped convict, and hot on each trail is a roughly sketched gang of investigators: bull-headed local detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), geeky Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego Soto (Lost's Jorge Garcia), and need-to-know government agent Emerson Hauser (Neill). Each time, Madsen and Soto go out into the field, disobey Hauser's orders, and wrangle in the week's baddie. Then, minutes before the credits roll, something ominous and all-around worrisome happens, hinting at the mysteries to come: How did the guards and criminals disappear? Why did they come back now? And, to riff on one of Soto's oft-visited critiques, "How does everybody seem to just accept what's happening, like it's not the biggest thing ever?"
In spite of these questions, Alcatraz, produced by J.J. Abrams and Elizabeth Sarnoff (the team behind Lost), is muddled by its own terribly formulaic design. Until we get answers (and hopefully they'll actually be provided this time around), the series will merely be a by-the-numbers police procedural that just so happens to involve some light sci-fi. It's a calculated relationship designed to soften the edges of both crime drama and sci-fi for maximum general interest, but it's compelling enough to suggest there's room for creative growth ahead. Save for Madsen and Soto, every character is a loose cipher for duplicity, their intentions unclear and their moral compasses even more so.
And that's the potential strength behind this otherwise sterile, network-friendly cops-and-time-travel gimmick: Within that twaddle, prisoners are abused, innocents are murdered, and some unknown evil lurks supreme. Until the show better explores those ideas, though, it's stuck stumbling along a foundation built of tropes, unwilling to gamble its broad, superficial appeal for sharper, more incisive storytelling.
The good news: By the end of the second episode, Jones and Garcia develop a sorely needed rapport, enough so to mask the script's listless dialogue and logical inconsistencies. Sarnoff and company splatter a handful of Great Big Mysteries against the wall too, countering the show's one-villain-per-episode format with intriguing long-term story arcs that hark back to The X-Files's heyday. Now, if Alcatraz would only ditch Michael Giacchino's melodramatic score, go all-in on the lingering gloom, and give Sam Neill something to do besides scowl, it'd be a show worth watching.