Yup. There’s an intentional pun in that title. And it refers dutifully to Wednesday nights of yore, way back in 2004 when committed sci-fi fanatics and casual remote control wielding Americans alike were first introduced to the ABC ratings goliath choreographed by J.J. Abrams and company, set on some island somewhere. It follows then that déjà vu abounds when J.J. Abrams stamps his name on a new series for FOX focused on another island that may be more infamous than the one where viewers first fell in love the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors, if in name alone. In its two-hour series premiere, Alcatraz makes it abundantly clear that it aims to aggressively court the viewers with a keen eye for nerd-bait as well as the regular chums with expendable incomes and Nielsen boxes – the bread and butter of the once resplendent Lost fandom.
Jorge Garcia fundamentally reprises perhaps the most iconically uncontroversial character in recent television history without even bothering to get a haircut. New Hurley does and says old Hurley things as he obsesses over this new old island and explores this new 50 year-old mystery (about supposedly old inmates turned new.) He’s a bit taken aback by the possibility of supernatural time-traveling crooks, but only a bit because he’s the protector of the Island now, or that’s what we’re meant to infer. On occasion you may even catch him mid-soliloquy, discussing how familiar he is with the Island and some but not all of its secrets.
There’s certainly other Lost easter eggs here and there but just like its titlecard font, Alcatraz is reminiscent of but clearly not Lost. In fact, Alcatraz is J.J. Abrams’ new sci-fi police procedural hybrid darling on FOX. A series for those in need of a serving of smart, intuitive, young blonde detective with a problematic history that she somehow uses to fuel an ambition to solve unconventional cases. Maybe she’s an FBI agent. Maybe her partner’s dead. Maybe give her a specialist/consultant/expert as a partner in his stead. She uses unorthodox methodologies anyway and kicks enough ass for the both of them. Right?
When Fringe first premiered on FOX in the fall of 2008, during the fourth season of Lost, Lance Reddick seemed to carry intrigue and enigma from one universe to another – along with strong acting chops exercised on the Wire. Fringe enjoys a bit of the Lost-but-not treatment as well, subtly for the most part (an Oceanic boarding pass here or there), but has developed into something wholly independent with some of the most ambitious and original storytelling on television today, in its fourth season. But alas, the numbers, as they’re wont to do, fall short in supporting this fact. In fact, besides ratings, Fringe is getting increasingly more expensive to produce as time progresses, an unattractive position to be in.
Then comes Alcatraz. Plainly put, Alcatraz is Fringe with less. Less cost. Less plot. Less science. Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones), the lead detective closely following the supernatural events surrounding Alcatraz island, even has significantly less blonde hair than Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv), the lead FBI agent of the Fringe division. There’s a leanness to Alcatraz that positions it in opposition to Fringe, even while on the same network. Fringe has been on cancellation watch since nearly its onset because of attributes that simultaneously limit its viewership yet contribute to its remarkably consistent quality – almost everyone now plays two characters in two parallel universes just for kicks. And sadly, the old tricks to save both worlds, like Warner Bros finding lucrative licensing deals, may not work this time around.
In a very real way, Alcatraz represents a faith worst than death for Fringe and its loyal fanbase: the knowledge that in an alternate universe where Fringe wasn’t as creative and Anna Torv’s hair wasn’t as long and Joshua Jackson wasn’t as fit, things might be different. It’s important to know this if Fringe doesn’t make it and the Others on the island somehow thrive. Alcatraz is a series with promise that may or may not meet expectations, but Fringe is undeniably in the company of Alias and Lost when it comes to Abrams productions that contributed greatly to sci-fi action dramas on primetime.
So when asked what they died for (the Lost pun game isn’t easy), be sure to tell them that. The End.