Ellen Gray: 'Alcatraz' not an easy cell

Posted: January 16, 2012

* ALCATRAZ. 8 tonight, Fox 29.

PEOPLE WHO GO into the two-hour premiere of Fox's "Alcatraz" expecting "Lost"-meets-"Prison Break" are bound to be disappointed.

A drama with supernatural overtones, it is, yes, set on an island - though one that San Franciscans can see on any day when the fog isn't obscuring it and which is visited by more than a million tourists a year - and, OK, "Lost's" Jorge Garcia is one of its stars and J.J. Abrams one of its executive producers.

"In theory, you know, any land mass is an island," Abrams said last week during the Television Critics Association's winter meetings when someone pointed out the obvious to Garcia.

" 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' is much like 'Lost,' honestly," he added, jokingly.

As for "Prison Break," there are prisoners on the loose - characters who apparently left the Rock somewhat precipitately on the same day in 1963 - but whether they escaped or were merely unleashed remains to be seen.

Whether I hang around to find out also remains to be seen. The pilot, which introduces Sarah Jones as San Francisco police Detective Rebecca Madsen and Garcia as Dr. Diego "Doc" Soto, an Alcatraz-obsessive she partners with to try to solve a case that seems to involve a long-dead inmate from the long-closed federal penitentiary, didn't settle it for me.

But I've been wrong about this stuff before - I wasn't wowed by the pilot for Fox's "Fringe," either, and it's become one of my favorite shows, both smarter and with more heart than I'd expected at first.

Sam Neill's appearance may be no guarantee of success - he couldn't save ABC's "Happy Town" - but when he turned up as a federal agent named Emerson Hauser, it made me happy, at least.

There's something up with Hauser, who would seem to be a lot older than Neill, but whatever it is, he isn't telling.

Neither is Neill, who joked with reporters that "Hauser's been working out. And he's traveled a lot in the East. He knows a lot about facial creams as well as martial arts. He's a very dangerous man as well as a smooth man."

That may be true. Or not. Anything, it seems, might happen in "Alcatraz," which, like so many shows in recent seasons, seems to be striving for some combination of mythology (to grab the Comic-Con crowd and those of us who love serials) with closed-end, catch-of-the-week stories so as not to drive away more casual viewers.

I'm not hooked, but I'm not yet planning my escape, either.

Send email to graye@phillynews.com

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