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TV Tonight: Alcatraz

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Even before Fox debuted Fringe in 2008, the series suffered under the unfair question of whether it would be the next version of its producer J.J. Abrams’ Lost. Once the show aired, it was quickly clear that the show had no such intention: it was more episodic, less baroque and more of a paranormal-gumshoe show along the lines of The X-Files, and it would be a full season until it developed into the parallel-universe sci-fi thriller that we now know Fringe to be.

The question for Abrams’ Alcatraz (co-created by Lost’s Elizabeth Sarnoff) is now, instead, whether it will be the next Fringe. (We will politely pretend for now that Abrams’ Person of Interest does not exist.) Superficially, at least, Alcatraz from the get-go is much more like Fringe than Fringe was ever like Lost.

There’s a young female investigator, Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), who finds herself investigating a series of bizarre incidents; rather than paranormal “fringe” events, they’re mundane crimes, but committed by prisoners who were at Alcatraz half a century ago, when it was closed—or “closed”—and do not appear to have aged. She ends up paired with a brilliant but eccentric young man, here, Alcatraz scholar and comic fanboy Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, in a role that ticks every box on the Garcia checklist). And the find themselves working with a mysterious older man—not the eccentric Walter Bishop but the menacing Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), a Federal agent running the hush-hush case of the reappeared prisoners. He even has a young Astrid-figure assistant (Parminder Nagra).

This sets Alcatraz up to use the same strategy Fringe used to try to cultivate a large audience. Week by week, an anthology of moody crime stories about the inmate of the week and the score he’s trying to settle; over time, the larger questions of who abracadabra’ed them free in 1963, how and for what larger purpose. (Fringe eventually decided to say screw it and double down on the mythology, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) By the end of the two-hour debut, you’ll have more of the latter questions and nothing close to an answer, which means, for now, the character chemistry and stories will have to bring you back week to week.

For my part, I’m not sure they will. Alcatraz’s early crime stories are competent enough, in a moody, achey, men-gone-wrong kind of way. But there’s a coldness to the show, and no sense that these are characters I want to invest in and spend time getting to know.

Even in its early anthology days, Fringe’s constants were the father-son relationship of the Bishops, and Olivia’s dealing with the death/betrayal of her lover. Sarah is dealing with the death of her police partner, and questions about the Alcatraz connections of her grandfather, but they feel like obligatory character motivation, and it doesn’t help that Jones reads more “real estate agent” than “hardboiled cop.” Diego’s sudden partnering with Sarah comes across forced. And Neill is steely, enigmatic and as hard to break into as The Rock was to break out of. The one relationship that feels genuine is between Sarah and her ex-prison-guard-turned-bartender uncle (the terrific Robert  Forster), but he gets relatively little to say and do so far.

There are some well-executed mood scenes, particularly the flashbacks to the ’60s, that give me hope Alcatraz can develop a voice and a storytelling sensibility. But too much of the series feels dropped on us, and the characters, as if we should simply accept the situation, because, well, we decided to watch a TV show about it. Sarah goes from San Francisco cop working the streets to chasing time-traveling murderers from the past, and she barely flinches at the transition. That job falls to Diego, who at one point remarks, “Is anyone else’s head exploding right now?” But no one else’s head obliges, and a lot of obvious questions go unasked early on. (Questions I need to leave unasked for now, to avoid spoiling plot twists in the debut.)

The charitable way of putting it is, Alcatraz is asking us to take a lot on faith. And while comparisons, as Fringe found, can be unfair, here I’ll use one to cut the show a little slack: if this is the next Fringe, its success will depend a lot on how the larger whodunit unfolds, and that could take a while.

For now, I’ll put this prison drama on probation. I don’t expect to watch Alcatraz every week, but I’ll check back. later. If it’s not the next Fringe, much less the next Lost, I at least want to know what it will be when it finally becomes Alcatraz.