Tonight there's a jailbreak

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The Independent Culture

There's nothing like the clanging of prison doors and the desperation of men and women in lockdown to get a television audience's heart racing – or so executives are hoping, as the prison drama gears up for a small-screen revival.

We've already seen Prisoners' Wives, BBC1's uneven, but more-serious-than-the-title-sounds, drama about three women trying to get by while their loved ones do time. Now, fresh from America, comes the JJ Abrams-produced Alcatraz. Centred on three private investigators – a cop, a government official, and a comic-book enthusiast and Alcatraz expert played by Jorge "Hurley from Lost" Garcia – and their attempts to track down 302 criminals who mysteriously vanished from San Francisco's notorious prison rock, Alcatraz is a frequently frustrating blend of prison drama, crime series and sci-fi thriller. In other words it's a JJ Abrams show, and how much of your time you are prepared to commit to it will depend on your tolerance for time travel, twists, unexplained plot points and characters hinting at secrets.

Those who prefer their prison dramas without a twist should wait until later in the year with both FX and NBC ordering prison-set shows to pilot.FX's show, Furlough, is a hybrid of private-eye tale and prison drama, written by crime novelist Charlie Huston. NBC's new show is an adaptation of women's prison drama, Bad Girls, written by John 'ER' Wells.

In Alcatraz's increasingly elaborate twists there are shades of Fox's ridiculous but addictive Prison Break. Ultimately the moments when it works best are when it concentrates on the three sleuths and the prisoners they are tracking. For, as the downbeat, surprisingly delicate Prisoners' Wives recognised, the appeal of the best prison dramas lies in the complex relationships between characters under pressure.

'Alcatraz' is on Watch, Tuesdays at 9pm