J.J. Abrams Fuses Sci-Fi with Crime Genre on 'Alcatraz,' Fox's New Monday Night Hit

FOX’s newest hit show gives viewers an unusual look at a familiar subject.

In the show’s version of history, when Alcatraz Prison was shut down in 1963, its prisoner population disappeared into thin air before they could be transferred to other jails around the country. Fifty years later, they begin reappearing one at a time, killing new victims.

San Francisco homicide detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) shows up to the scene of the first crime, the murder of the former deputy warden of Alcatraz, only to be unceremoniously dismissed by federal agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill). Rather than moving on, she begins her own investigation, leading her to author and Alcatraz historian Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia). Hauser is more than he appears, having been expecting the return of “The 63s” – the missing Alcatraz inmates – for a long time. Eventually he recruits Madsen and Soto to join his team and help him capture The 63s as they return. Joined by Hauser’s assistant Lucy Singleton (Parminder Nagra), they work together to investigate how The 63s disappeared and whose orders they are following now that they are coming back.

There’s enough mystery from the overall premise to keep the viewer intrigued but plenty of information in each episode to keep the viewer from getting “lost,” a frequent criticism of J.J. Abrams’ last hit TV show. Michael Giacchino joins the Bad Robot crew again, creating another beautifully haunting score for ‘Alcatraz.’ The paranormal elements aren’t so overbearing as to turn away crime show fans who aren’t into sci-fi. That should change as more of the back story is revealed, but if you aren’t a sci-fi fan, you can still watch ‘Alcatraz’ and not feel assaulted with sci-babble.

The ensemble cast has a good balance of gravity (Neill) and levity (Garcia) with room for each of the characters to grow. Jones is pleasant as Madsen, a non-abrasive strong female role. At the beginning of the pilot, we see her lose her partner while chasing a criminal, in a scene that clearly evokes Vertigo,’ where she loses her grip on her partner’s hand as he falls from the roof of a building. Later we learn that the criminal they were pursuing was actually one of The 63s, a returned Alcatraz convict, and her own grandfather, smartly giving the character a personal connection to the investigation. Garcia is believable in his role as an Alcatraz authority, and maintains his likable lighthearted persona without the liberal peppering of “likes” and “dudes” we’re used to hearing from him on ‘LOST.’ And hopefully we will quickly see Neill’s Hauser given more notes beyond serious and condescending.

My hunch is that the launch of ‘Alcatraz’ is a signal that FOX’s long-running sci-fi show, ‘Fringe,’ is finally on its last leg. ‘Alcatraz’ is a perfect replacement for ‘Fringe,’ sharing many similar elements: a “freak of the week” criminal captured before the end of each episode; a special federal investigation team with a female blonde wunderkind police officer-turned-federal agent, the seasoned subject matter expert with a non-Caucasian female assistant; even the same muted color scheme and shooting style. Centering the premise of the show around prisoners in Alcatraz helps give ‘Alcatraz’ a focus that ‘Fringe’ didn’t find for a season or two.

The two premier episodes, ‘Pilot’ and ‘Ernest Cobb,’ are available for viewing on the show’s official website. New episodes air on FOX network, Mondays at 9/8c.