Comic-Con Alcatraz Review: J.J. Abrams Strikes Gold Again

Welcome to another J.J. Abrams-produced mystery island show. Alcatraz was one of several new TV series premiered at San Diego Comic-Con Wednesday night, and it was by far the standout.

The series centers around a mysterious event in 1963 that made 302 Alcatraz prisoners and guards vanish without any explanation. For some reason we don't yet know, a prisoner named Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce) appears in present day Alcatraz and makes his way to San Francisco to seek payback from those who've done him wrong. It's up to a spunky young police officer (Sarah Jones), assisted by a geeky Alcatraz expert (Jorge Garcia), to stop Sylvane, all the while dealing with a mysterious federal agent (Sam Neill) who clearly knows more about the Alcatraz disappearances than he lets on.

Alcatraz shares elements of other Abrams-produced shows like Lost and Fringe, and it's also reminiscent of the under-appreciated USA show The 4400. But the show does more than just retread familiar territory. By the end of the pilot episode the Comic-Con audience was clearly wanting more from yet another J.J. Abrams mystery box.

The leads have great chemistry across the board, and I'm already anticipating this crew's weekly adventures. Jones' police officer, Rebecca Madsen, is reminiscent of Fringe's Olivia Dunham (though she seems more at ease in the role than Anna Torv was at the beginning of that series). Jorge Garcia's character, Dr. Diego Soto, is nowhere near the slacker that he was in Lost, but he's still the same lovable geek. And Sam Neil as Emerson Hauser reminds us of just how compelling he can be with the right material. (Oh and Parminder Nagra is in it for some reason.)

Just like Lost and The 4400, there are plenty of stories to milk from the show's central mystery alone. The pilot deftly paints a sympathetic picture of Sylvane, despite having him do some decidedly unheroic things. It seems clear that Sylvane was sent back for a reason, something we catch a glimpse of when he's activated as a sleeper agent. There are Lost-esque flashbacks to his experiences in Alcatraz — mostly being tortured by a sadistic warden. And to keep things from getting too prisoner-mystery-of-the-week, there's a personal connection that Officer Madsen has to the island, and potentially to the disappearances.

Why the Alcatraz disappearances occurred, and who caused the event, will remain the running question of the series. I'm just hoping that the show's writers, including Elizabeth Sarnoff (Lost, Deadwood), who is also an exec-producer, can manage to craft a satisfying conclusion that doesn't string us along for several years only to end in a goddamn church.