Stylistically, Alcatraz is as sophisticated and glossy as you'd expect from the team behind the luscious Lost and accomplished Fringe. You can't underestimate the soothing effect of knowing you're in safe hands when it comes to the technical demands of putting a show like this together, and if nothing else Alcatraz doesn't disappoint on a purely aesthetic level (even when, subsequent to its pilot, no filming actually takes place on the real-life Alcatraz). But that familiarity breeds a certain level of problems, because there are chunks of this show that evoke either Fringe or Lost—and not just in terms of production, like the return of composer Michael Giacchino to handle the music, Lost stalwart Jack Bender directing, or Lost's "whooshing" flashbacks being replaced by the "clanking" screen wipe of prison bars. In many ways this is just freshman-era Fringe with mad prisoners replacing mad scientists, chased by another triptych of archetypal characters: the gutsy blonde, the intelligent nerd, and the mysterious older man. Sure there are differences, but there's a pervasive feeling that co-creator Elizabeth Sarnoff (a staff writer for Lost) has taken ingredients she liked from JJ Abrams' other hits and only tried to disguise that fact halfheartedly.
The pilot is surprisingly poor, which I really wasn't expecting to be true. There isn't too much to explain to viewers, but the episodes makes the mistake of spending far too much time on our first criminal—murderer Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce)—rather than get us interested in the show's regulars. After the first hour, I had alost no real feelings or positive opinions of Madsen, Hauser and Soto, and could barely even remember their names. Things don't improve that much for the second episode, "Ernest Cobb", although that story was much more enjoyable because the eponymous con's back-story and modus operandi was simply more entertaining than Sylvane's. There was also a decent ending which intrigued me enough to be considered a success.
Overall, "Ernest Cobb" was entertaining enough to draw me back, even if I can't shake my doubts about this show's overall chances of success. It helps that it's a mid-season replacement, so there aren't too many episodes ordered and less chance for audiences to get bored, and there's obviously time for the writers to make us care about the investigators. But this is the second weakest pilot of a JJ Abrams-affiliated show, behind Undercovers, and I was expecting something far more compelling and exciting.
written by Steven Lilien, Bryan Wynbrandt & Elizabeth Sarnoff (1.1) & Alison Balian (1.2) / directed by Danny Cannon (1.1) & Jack Bender (1.2) / 16 January 2012 / Fox