TV review: Alcatraz is a supremely silly set-up - but I'm hooked


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The Independent Culture

When the first season of Lost reached its final moments, and that incorrigible rogue JJ Abrams had still failed to provide the answers we'd been implicitly promised, I decided there was no point sticking around for more. I pity the fools who did persevere for five seasons more, only to discover it was the polar bear wot did it (or whatever – as I say, I'd stopped paying attention by then). So it is with sheepish surprise that I tell you, it's 2013, and once again I'm hooked on an Abrams sci-fi mystery.

Executive producer Abrams is too busy with his duties on Star Wars and Star Trek, of course, to actually write the series – that task fell to Elizabeth Sarnoff, Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt. But the Abrams mark is all over Alcatraz, which had its first episode broadcast on Really last night.

The premise is this: when the infamous island prison closed its doors in 1963, the criminals weren't simply transferred to another penitentiary, as the history books tell us. Instead, they were spirited away to a location unknown, where they remained in stasis.

In present-day San Francisco, the fingerprint of a long-dead Alcatraz inmate turns up at a crime scene, and it's the job of Detective Madsen (Sarah Jones) to find out how. She enlists the help of Alcatraz nerd, sorry, respected academic, Dr Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, aka Hurley from Lost) and so the stage is set. Each episode will tell the story of one of "the '63s", while (hopefully) inching us further towards the final Big Reveal.

It's a supremely silly set-up and the actor Sam Neill knows it. How else to explain the free rein of movement he's given to his camp right eyebrow? As Chief Inspector Campbell in Peaky Blinders, Neill rarely lets the eyebrow escape its moorings, but as FBI Agent Emerson Howser in Alcatraz, it's bouncing around like a caffeinated caterpillar. Along with his assistant Dr Banerjee (the lovely Parminder Nagra from ER), Howser always seemed to know a lot more than he let on. Was he really trying to help Detective Madsen? Or just keep her on side?