It’s understandable that some viewers who, upon hearing the description “a new J.J. Abrams show about a mysterious island,’’ may feel a little gun-shy about checking out “Alcatraz,’’ the producer’s Fox series premiering tonight at 8 on Channel 25.
Of course, the island on “Lost’’ and the famous federal prison in San Francisco Bay exist in different worlds, but “Alcatraz’’ has a drop of story DNA from several previous Abrams efforts, including a slim-but-kickass female lead working for a secret government agency (“Alias,’’ “Fringe’’); inexplicable, possibly supernatural time-bending (“Lost,’’ “Fringe’’); and “Lost’’ island caretaker Hurley, played by fan favorite Jorge Garcia.
In “Alcatraz,’’ Garcia plays Dr. Diego Soto, a leading scholar on the prison and a comic book aficionado. He crosses paths with Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) when she runs down a strange homicide linked to the Rock.
We are told that Alcatraz closed in 1963 and all the prisoners - among the most incorrigible in the country - were transferred, but the “real’’ story is more curious: They, and their guards, simply disappeared. It seems one former prisoner has reappeared in present-day San Francisco and has started killing again. The strange catch? He doesn’t appear to have aged a day since 1963.
Madsen and Soto’s investigation into the new crimes leads them to the prison itself and a run-in with feds Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, “Jurassic Park’’) and Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra, “ER’’). Although the enigmatic Hauser is prickly and tight-lipped with information (not unlike Finch on Abrams’s current hit, “Person of Interest’’), he eventually explains that he heads a special task force investigating the odd phenomenon of the prisoners’ reappearance, and invites Madsen and Soto to join them. Several menacing glances and a few violent outbursts suggest that Hauser may have ulterior and not-so-pure motives.
Each of them has a special connection to Alcatraz. Soto, it would appear thus far, is simply an enthusiast. Madsen’s uncle and guardian, Ray (the always welcome Robert Forster), was a guard, as was her grandfather - or so she was told. Hauser was a young guard in 1963 who was among the first to discover the disappearances, and Banerjee, well, let’s just say she has a link.
The show will toggle between stories set in the prison in the ’60s - including the prisoner’s interactions with the quietly cruel warden (Jonny Coyne) - and the present-day investigations. So, like most modern procedurals, there will be two story lines at play. There will be the main criminal of the week, and the framework mythology of the investigation into what actually happened in 1963. There are intimations in tonight’s pilot that, at the very least, some kind of nefarious and freaky medical experiments were being conducted on the prisoners.
Unlike “Alias,’’ “Fringe,’’ and “Lost,’’ there seem to be only three basic questions to the overarching mythology of “Alcatraz’’: What were the experiments? Where did the prisoners go? Why are they reappearing un-aged?
And there are other, more tangential questions: Why didn’t relatives of the prisoners who disappeared ever wonder why they weren’t able to visit them again? Where is the new, brightly lighted maximum security lockdown where the recaptured prisoners are taken? What kind of amazing fitness regimen and age-defying potions and unguents must Hauser be employing to look as good as he does, when, in the show’s timeline, he must be at least be in his mid-to-late 60s.
The business of exposition in the two-hour pilot limits the sense to which we can discern how this team will work together, and whether there will be much levity in what is often a pretty grim setting. The actors are solid, but each is only given a couple of notes to play at the outset. “Alcatraz’’ still does the most important thing it can do with its pilot: Intrigue enough to make us want to see at least one more episode.