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Alcatraz 

I’m just as lost as the prisoners in this new J.J. Abrams history mystery.

click to enlarge History Mystery!
  • History Mystery!

The mystique of Alcatraz prison compels 5,000 tourists to explore its deserted barracks every day. We’re all sucked in by both the legends of real inmates (Al Capone) and the outrageous action-packed movies (The Rock) that have been set there.  

But I’m not sure that J.J. Abrams’ Alcatraz TV series is powerful enough to up the intrigue.

Through a mysterious time/space phenomenon (key to all Abrams shows), nasty criminals who disappeared 50 years ago are re-surfacing in San Francisco, ageless and hell-bent on violent revenge.

A decent premise, but I’m still resisting the alleged talents of the baby-faced central character, Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, Big Love). The fact that she was raised by her uncle, a former cop, is supposed to explain why Madsen’s far beyond her years in investigative capacities.

We all love her partner, comic-book artist/criminologist/Alcatraz historian Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, Lost) because he’s just like Hurley (on Lost), but with a sports jacket and two doctorates.

Garcia’s Soto adds valuable insight and light-heartedness, as when he walks into a gun shop in the second episode: “Call of Duty Four Urban Warfare in 3-D — I think I got a Second Amendment contact high.” Both Soto and Madsen clash with their boss, the condescending Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, Happy Town, Jurassic Park), whose super-secret government agency includes a team of forensic scientists and a group of guards in a new and improved (super-secret) subterranean prison designed to house the re-apprehended time-traveling bad guys. The underground, redwood-forested prison looks just like the old Alcatraz, but shinier!

A key component to of each of the episodes is the criminals’ 1960 back stories. But why are all the flashbacks from three years before the prisoners vanished? What role does Warden Edwin James (Jonny Coyle, Undercovers) play in the mystery, and what the hell is his alternately British and Southern accent?

The open-and-shut nature of each “case” in Alcatraz plays more like a procedural drama than Abrams’ better shows, like Alias and Fringe.

While it may be easier to follow for casual viewers, the cop-show formula could ultimately bore science-fiction fans.

TIVO-WORTHY

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The River
The last communication from famous explorer Emmett Cole (Bruce Greenwood), before he disappeared, is a frantically lit video of him running, and a desperate scream in the dark. Steven Spielberg and the director of Paranormal Activity have created this spooky show about the family’s journey to find Cole. (Tuesdays, 9 pm, ABC)

Cougar Town
It’s a shame that the show-renaming contest never panned out. In the winter premiere, the wine-quaffing cul-de-sac pals follow Travis (Dan Byrd) to Hawaii. Expect the relationship between Jules (Courtney Cox) and Grayson (Josh Hopkins) to go to the next level. (Tuesdays, 8:30 pm. ABC - Premieres Feb. 14)

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