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It’s hard to watch a television show with some sort of mystery these days without wondering if it can fill the void that “Lost” left when it ended in May 2010. Shows from “FlashForward” to “The Event” have tried to claim the title, but failed, and some spectacularly. New York Times writer Heather Havrilesky even claimed that “Lost” has ruined modern television as networks search for the next program like it.
As a “Lost” fan, I disagree heartily with that assertion, but I also worried that there would never be another “Lost.” There would just be a bunch of copycats and cheap imitations. And then “Alcatraz” came along.
While it may seem unfair to compare every show to “Lost,” using it as a gold standard of sorts, it’s hard not to see its similarity with “Alcatraz.” Both shows are set on a mysterious island. Both shows are executive produced by J.J. Abrams and written by Elizabeth Sarnoff. Both shows use flashbacks to create complex characters. Both shows have Jorge Garcia in an audience surrogate role. And both shows have really amazing pilots.
“Alcatraz” is about the prison in San Francisco Bay that closed in 1963, but according to the show’s storyline, it never actually closed. Instead, the 250 prisoners and guards disappeared—and then returned to commit crimes in the present day. The pilot itself was top-notch in almost every way. Each episode follows the FBI team tasked with hunting the prisoners down, and flashbacks allow us to see what they were like in 1963. This device makes the “bad guy of the week” into someone of much more depth than on a show like “CSI” or “Law and Order.” While previews may have made the twists seem obvious, imagining what the pilot would have been without knowing them makes it that much better. The entire cast is strong, including lead Sarah Jones as Detective Rebecca Madsen, whom I had never seen before. Madsen has a personal connection to the Alcatraz case, as revealed in a “Vertigo” homage of a flashback, that her partner was murdered by one of the prisoners. Jorge Garcia plays Dr. Diego Soto, an expert on Alcatraz who becomes Madsen’s partner. Hopefully Garcia is allowed to show the range he displayed on “Lost,” because he can do more than deliver exactly what is on the audience’s mind. (My personal favorite: “Is anyone else’s head exploding right now?”) And Sam Neill (“Jurassic Park”) delivers every line perfectly as Emerson Hauser, one of the guards who originally discovered the missing prisoners.
Though filming moved to Vancouver after the pilot, this episode was filmed at Alcatraz itself, and the location is magical. The score, by Michael Giacchino, was fantastic. It’s a pity he’s an Oscar-and-Emmy-and-Grammy-award-winning composer and is moving on to bigger projects, because not since his own work on “Lost” has a television score been this atmospheric and awesome. My only worry is that the show might not be able to balance the procedural and serial aspects of its narrative, and the network will push for more of a procedural. Then again, with “Lost” veterans like Sarnoff, Abrams and longtime director Jack Bender on board, “Alcatraz” should be a success.