Can J.J. Abrams do it again?
Like some sort of pilot godfather who makes networks a show they can’t refuse, the prolific producer-director has two new shows hitting primetime next season. One, Fox’s Alcatraz, is drawing inevitable comparisons to Lost. There’s another island, another mystery, with Lost scribe Elizabeth Sarnoff running the show and Jorge Garcia on board in a starring role. But you only need to watch Fox’s trailer (below) to know Alcatraz is very much its own series. “The premise from the very beginning is something I knew I would watch,” Abrams tells EW. “And that’s certainly not an arbitrator of what anyone else would watch, but I knew it was a good place to start.”
The show’s details have been kept under wraps until recently: Alcatraz follows a San Francisco police detective (Sarah Jones) who teams with an expert on the prison (Garcia) after a murder suspect turns out to be a Alcatraz prisoner who disappeared from the island about 50 years ago. It seems the killer wasn’t the only prisoner to vanish — or the only one to return. And now they must stop the Alcatraz escapees as they re-enter modern society without having aged — and try to solve the mystery of how this is happening, and why.
“There’s a kind of intrigue about Alcatraz,” Abrams said. “I heard the name and I thought, ‘How could there never have been a show called Alcatraz?’ I liked the idea of a show looking backwards in order to prevent what’s going to happen looking forwards. The idea of the worst of the worst being sent to that place. What happens if they all disappeared one day, and what happens if they suddenly came back and had not aged a day? That notion was so kick ass.”
The pilot, written by Sarnoff and directed by Danny Cannon (who helmed the pilots for CSI and Nikita), impressed Fox, but for awhile seemed unlikely to land a slot due to Fox’s cramped shelf space and other genre shows on the schedule — such as Terra Nova and Abrams’ own Fringe getting a renewal. There was another concern as well: What is this show ultimately about? Lost famously launched without the showrunners knowing answers to some of the pilot’s central mysteries (such as what was the monster in the jungle). Flying blind gives writers leeway to be inventive along the way, but is also hairy for a network considering whether to invest in a program.
“Fox wanted to know what they were getting into, they did not want to get into a situation where it was a completely up-for-grabs scenario,” Abrams said. “They asked for the explanation of what’s going on to a large degree. Obviously they didn’t say, ‘Give us every script synopsis and tell us what happens in the series finale,’ but they wanted the main headlines of what the show is about, what the backstory is.”
Sarnoff wrote a document, which is obviously being kept secret from public eyes, explaining everything. Abrams says those revelations were “actually the key to getting the show on the air.” Producers will still be free to take detours and things could always change, but the fact that Alcatraz has a firm backstory — and one compelling and sensible enough to convince Fox to buy into the program — ought also reassure fans who get frustrated when they sense TV writers are completely winging it on serialized shows.
“The fact that Fox asked for that was a massively helpful thing for all of us,” Abrams said. “This is a very specific stand-alone show seeing these prisoners come back every week, but there’s also this [overall mythology] story that will be a part of the tentpole episodes of the show.”
Here’s the trailer for Alcatraz, which debuts in midseason: