J.J. Abrams talks 'Alcatraz': How a secret document led to Fox pickup, will keep writers from getting 'Lost'

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Image Credit: Fox

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:

Read more:
J.J. Abrams to pitch new drama about Alcatraz Island
Jorge Garcia swims to J.J. Abrams’ ‘Alcatraz’

Comments (70 total) Add your comment
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  • Big Walt

    Will Jorge Garcia drop any weight? I mean how can he not lose weight if he’s chasing those criminals around all the time?!?!

    • Big Walt is a DOUCHE

      Hey ding wad, what does that have to do with the show. NOTHING, so step off, you know it’s ok to admit that you are attracted to him, it will be ok, it gets better.

      • dave

        I guess you’re a little slow so I’ll fill you in. He’s making fun of all the people complaining about Hurley not losing weight on Lost.

      • This show will be awesome

        Sam Neil + Jorge Garcia + San Francisco + JJ Abrams = absolute success. My only gripe is that the main female star needs to grow out her hair, I cannot stand women with short hair

      • Halle Berry

        Say What !!

    • Nobama 2012

      Elect Mitt Romney and give us back our freedom!

      • bkwurm1

        Random

      • Ellen

        Random, but true

        The man is a financial genius who has turned bankrupt organizations into profit makers. That’s just what we need right now.

    • DGH

      He has a stash of Dhamra food from his last adventure he can snack on.(the beer is all gone though)

  • Jeff

    This looks so good! I can’t wait!

    • Matt

      Yes, finally a show to get me excited this fall. We’ve lost so many in the past couple of years, while gaining relatively few…

  • Abbey

    I’m in!

  • crispy

    It sorta reminds me of The Event and The 4400… let’s a hope it’s better than both of those!

    • Wha’ever

      What are you talking about ? The 4400 was great ! I still remember the chills the intro used to give me.

      • crispy

        I tried to like that show, but the superpower-of-the-week just because tedious. And the USA Network production values were barely a step up from SciFi Channel.

      • crispy

        because=became

    • Ames

      I was thinking the same thing: the same people who took the 4400 took the prisoners. I still can’t believe USA network didn’t have a movie to wrap that series up.

  • tim

    i will never watch another jj abrams production–especially another stupid time travelling series.

    • Mole

      Ok.

    • Mick

      Yeah, totally agree. I’m too nervous I’ll invest six years in the show only to get no explanations to key questions.

      • Gupta

        if you had read the article you would know that FOX has already attempted to prevent this

      • Lost made sense

        maybe it’s best your don’t keep watching if it’s just all too confusing for you and with no pay off. I mean if that’s your impression then just leave it at that. Personally I love all he’s done and am extremely pleased with LOST as a complete series… not at all a waist of six years… rather the best ride on TV I’ve had yet.

    • DGH

      ok terrific!!

    • joelhunn

      I’m with you tim – will never trust that gang again

  • B

    Could be interesting, but “prisoner return of the week” could get old pretty quickly. The balance with the mythology will be important.

    • Sean

      That was exactly what people said about Fringe. Hopefully they will use the Prisoner of the Week idea to get people to start watching, and then delve into mythology, like Fringe is doing amazingly.

      • HugeFringeFanNOW

        Yeah, but Fringe came so close to not pulling up in time and being terrible. It took them until the end of season 1 to get it and start pulling up. I came so close to giving up on season 1 terrible one story episodes, I shudder thinking what I almost missed.

  • Cailean

    A JJ Abrams show that has had its backstory vetted?? Wow – I might actually be willing to give the guy a second chance with this one…

  • hana

    Well, we’re told Fringe had a full backstory in place too, but who even knows if that’s operational any more?

    • Ryan

      It is. I mean, if you take the showrunners’ word for it and believe them when they say that they have plans for 4-8 seasons and contingency plans for if they have to end it earlier than 8 seasons, then the plans are still in place. Or you could forget what the producers say and just look at the show itself and you’ll see that every major storyline up until 3.22 has had groundwork put in place since the first episode – which proves that there is a larger plan in place and it has been since the pilot. As for “Alcatraz,” I see no “Lost” similarities aside from Jorge Garcia, honestly. I see more “Fringe” similarities – blonde detective who doesn’t believe things at first, gets brought into a special task force, etc. BUT, the trailer and sypnosis are both SO awesome that I’m definitely going to be watching this in the fall.

      • crispy

        Now hold on… admittedly, I lost track of Fringe, but the show completely changed direction half-way thru season one when she stopped investigating her partner’s death. And haven’t they pretty much abandoned the concept of “The Pattern”? I’m not saying it’s bad, just disagreeing that they laid the groundwork for the core mystery in episode one.

      • Carla in Houston

        @Crispy: exactly what I was going to say. Fringe was sort of “meh” for me until that first season mid point, when they started delving into the mythology. At that point, it seems everything they had been building to went by the wayside.

      • Houstonian

        @FringeFans Hey when Fringe was airing initially on tv, yeah it seemed like random 1-off episodes. You had reruns and 1-2 week and midseason hiatus’… Whenever you get the chance watch Fringe season 1 dvd/bluray as a “marathon”.. hella entertaining!!!, there was just enough story advancement in each episode. didn’t seem like one-off freak-of-the-week anymore

  • Jeff

    Looks promising. Can we request Doc Jensen do the recaps?!?

    • C Men

      Sure if you want rambling, wild, meaningless theories.

      • DGH

        Thats exactly what I want why do I need a simple Ken Tucker recap when I already watched it and don’t need or want a simple recap. At least Doc gives you something to think about in his recaps.

      • Lost made sense

        are you serious? he’s only the best possible person to do the recap… and WAY more insightful than most writers for EW

    • Please No

      No…he would promise something and never deliver.

      • DGH

        Still waiting on his final LOST recap? Damn you Doc get it together man!

      • crispy

        Does he even work here anymore?

  • Ryann

    I can’t wait for this show! Anything that looks like it will interest both myself and my husband (not easy) makes me happy

  • 3reddogs

    Reading the description I wasn’t the least bit interested. Now that I’ve seen the trailer I’m peeved this isn’t going to air until “mid-season”, whenever that is.

  • DGH

    Everything about this show sounds awesome(except for the last sentence)

  • Already a Fan

    Can’t wait to see this show! Love love Jorge and JJ.

  • Laura G

    This show looks great – I love the trailer! I’m read to watch it right now . . . I don’t want to wait until midseason!

  • R

    You better come up with somebody better than Romney !

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