Last night was the two-hour premiere of Alcatraz, the new J.J. Abrams-produced mystery machine series about the infamous prison and, it would seem, some sort of time travel. It's Lost-style serialized intrigue mixed with procedural, which will probably make it less engaging but, one hopes, ultimately less frustrating than the old island show inevitably turned out to be.
Which is to say, we might continue to watch. Monday nights are pretty sparse, decent programming-wise, so why not jump down into this cheaply dug rabbit hole? The gist of the series: In 1963, all the inmates and guards on Alcatraz suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. This was kept a secret and the prison was closed and left to become the tourist mecca it is today. But now! Now the prisoners are starting to show back up in the world, one-by-one, unaged and, so far, hellbent on revenge. Sam Neill, who was one of the guards who discovered all the men missing back in the '60s, plays a mysterious federal agent of some type who is now trying to round them all up and put them back in a new Alcatraz he built under a hill in the woods (yeah). He comes to enlist the help of a tough lady SFPD detective and a nerdy comic book writer/Alcatraz expert (Lost's Jorge Garcia). So it's a ragtag group of investigators, with the detective being our main eyes and ears and exposition question-asker, who will, it seems, deal with a different convict every week.
And therein lies the silly cleverness of the show. They've found a good way to make this episodic television. Every new episode is a new convict with a new story who will, inevitably we'd think, be captured by Sam Neill and the gang and thrown into New Alcatraz. The show is actually not unlike the Ghostbusters cartoon series in that way. Every week we meet a new ghoul, and by episode's end they are trapped and put away in a vault. Basically the same premise! Alas, there is no sassy secretary on this show.
The time travel (or inter-dimensional or who knows what) aspects of Alcatraz, which was created by longtime Lost writer Elizabeth Sarnoff and two Kyle XY writers, have not been elucidated much so far, but possible options are secret government plot to test a time travel device, some sort of rip in space time, or alien abduction. Judging by how nutty the J.J. Abrams-produced Fox show Fringe has gotten, we really shouldn't discount any possibility, no matter how crazy-seeming. So we won't! We'll just keep watching until it all gets too knotty or too silly or whatever. It will take a long while for those burned by Lost to learn to fully love again, and to this show's credit it's not asking us for that level of devotion. This is like "Who shot Mr. Burns?" emotional involvement, not "What's in the hatch??" hysteria. It'll be fun to find out, but we're not scratching our brains out while we wait.