January 23rd, 2012, 9:53 am

Alcatraz on Probation

The first thing I instantly noticed about the new FOX sci-fi/mystery/thriller was JJ Abrams - or rather the lack of JJ Abrams. While the creator of "Lost" is listed as the executive producer, he is neither writing nor directing the pilot or any of the subsequent episodes. Abrams' fingerprints are all over this show. "Lost" composer Michael Giacchino wrote the series score, director Jack Bender has 37 "Lost" credits under his belt, Hurley himself Jorge Garcia is one of the leads and the memorable "Bad Robot" logo appears at the end credits. But there's a place JJ Abrams' absence is badly felt - the script.

I am not a huge fan of "Lost", but I appreciate how masterfully JJ Abrams can tell a story - and I can guarantee the worst JJ Abrams piece is not as contrived or clunky as this show. From the moment we see intrepid detective Rebecca Marsden (Sarah Jones) chase down a suspect, we know her partner will die and the killer will re-appear at the end of the episode. We know Rebecca won't back down from the murder of a former Alcatraz official, because she herself has family ties to the infamous prison, and not even perpetually gloomy G-Man Emerson Hauser (Sam Neil) can keep her off it. And last but not least, we know right where she'll find Alcatraz expert Diego Soto - in a comic book store (where you'll likely find more experts on Arkham Asylum rather than Alcatraz Prison).

The premise of "Alcatraz" is certainly an intriguing one. As two guards (one a young Hauser) learn, the prison didn't shut down - it disappeared, with all of its inmates and guards vanished without a trace. Some fifty years later, the inmates are returning - and they haven't aged a day. The inmates are committing a variety of crimes, directed by some hidden party for some mysterious objective, and no one can knows to look for them since they've been presumed dead for fifty years. Well, no one knows except the enigmatic Hauser, the equally mysterious Lucy (Parminder Nagra) and their two new recruits, Rebecca and Diego.

Unfortunately, the execution seems suspiciously flawed in action. When the first released inmate, Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce) is recaptured and sent to a maximum security prison in the middle of nowhere, the first thing he notices during his interrogation is the high-tech camera in the corner of the room. The guy is from 1963 - how does he even know to look for a camera in the room? All the inmates seem to have no trouble blending back into society. Hauser and his uber-mysterious agency are based beneath Alcatraz, but apparently have no way of knowing when inmates reappear on the island. Even if the Rock is now a tourist attraction, you'd think they'd be able to tell when someone appeared out of thin air on the prison grounds.

Nowhere is the writing more sloppily heavy-handed than in the depiction of the inmates. It seems like we're supposed to feel some amount of sympathy for them - but the show's plotlines make this really, really difficult. Yes, Jack Sylvane was abused, mistreated and experimented on by prison officials. His lengthy sentence was largely based on a technicality, and top it all off, his wife left him for his brother. We're clearly supposed to feel sorry for the guy - but once he gets out, he kills a (admittedly douchey) prison official for revenge, followed by two cops and another victim in cold blood. As a result, we don't care about Jack as much as the show does. Don't even get me started about the next inmate - Ernest Cobb - a sniper who kills teenage girls who remind him of his sister.

On the positive side, Jorge Garcia makes a hilariously unconventional and quirky partner. He makes the perfect stand-in for the audience by lampshading all the plot points we're being asked to swallow with lines like "Is anyone else's head exploding?" and "Why is this happening? Because I had some theories on worm holes..." Though he acts more like his vampire character from "Daybreakers" than his scientist from "Jurassic Park", Sam Neil is an effective lead in the show, even if his overly-gruff personality seems somewhat reminiscent of Jethro Gibbs. Sarah Jones has the toughest job in the show, though, as all her spunk and charisma struggles to limp through the cliches surrounding upon her character.

I was just about to give up on this show midway through the second half of the pilot, but a last minute twist lead to me DVRing the next episode. That said, I still remained unconvinced I'm going to make it through the entire season. While the mysteries of "Lost" continue to perplex and infuriate audiences, JJ Abrams had a masterful handle of plotting, pacing and characterization - all of which is as absent from this show as Abrams' name is from the writer credits. If something doesn't change soon, "Alcatraz" may be destined for the slammer.

(That's it for this rant. Check out a new Blue Yonder Wednesday)

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