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'Alcatraz' a moody, exciting new drama

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"Alcatraz" - DVR Record Series Options: ALL NEW EPISODES.

Easy call. If the first two episodes of Fox's new mystery-drama "Alcatraz" (8 p.m. tonight) are any indication, I'm enthusiastically in.

The premise of this captivating new J.J. Abrams show is that when the legendary Alcatraz prison shut down in March of 1963 and prisoners and guards were transferred off the island, 302 of them vanished into thin air. Then suddenly, the missing people begin showing up one by one in present day San Francisco. The action of the show flips back and forth in time from 1960 (or 1963) to 2012.

The missing, dubbed The 63s, are being tracked by federal agent Emerson Hauser, played by a scowling Sam Neill. Neill, who can be menacing in the role, has a unique connection to The Rock and to the missing 63s. Sarah Jones plays San Francisco detective Rebecca Madsen, one of those beautiful-but-slightly-damaged TV cops that every crime show apparently needs. Her damage (at least the damage we know about so far): her last partner was killed in front of her in the line of duty and her parents died when she was a child. She was raised by "uncle" Ray (Robert Forster), who was a guard on Alcatraz, as was her long-deceased grandfather.

Detective Madsen's sidekick is Dr. Diego "Doc" Soto, played by Jorge Garcia, who was Hurley on Abrams' "Lost." Doc is a historian whose specialty is Alcatraz. He's around for historical exposition and funny one-liners.

"Alcatraz" can be hauntingly atmospheric, particularly in the flashbacks, thanks to the beautiful photography and soundtrack. At times, it feels like you're watching a motion picture instead of a TV drama. A good bit of the mood could come from the fact that much of tonight's premiere episode was actually filmed on Alcatraz Island (the rest is filmed on a set in Vancouver that is a replica of the prison).

The J.J. Abrams connection means inevitable comparisons to "Lost" (yes, it takes place on an island and there's the whole time travel/alternate universe theme), but the supernatural element shouldn't scare off fans of straight dramas. "Alcatraz" is a serialized endeavor for sure, but each episode also plays out like a standard procedural: a missing prisoner or guard shows up in present-day San Francisco, he goes about taking care of some kind of nefarious unfinished business, and he is tracked down.

But there is a bigger mystery. Or rather, several of them. First and foremost, what happened to the 256 prisoners and 46 guards who disappeared from Alcatraz in 1963? Who took them? Why are they back? And who is pulling their strings once they return?

Abrams swears he won't keep audiences waiting for answers too long this time around.

The first prisoner we meet in tonight's debut is Jack Sylvane, a broke -- and broken -- war veteran imprisoned for robbing a grocery store. When Jack "awakens" in the middle of present-day Alcatraz, he immediately sets off to settle some scores. But it's also not as straightforward as that. "I only did what they told me," Jack Sylvane says at one point.

What who told him???

The show isn't perfect, but it's off to a really fine start, and as long as Abrams doesn't go off the rails, it could be a favorite. If I'm nit-picking, I think Garcia and Jones could (and should) improve with time. But Sam Neill is tight.

In short: I highly recommend this one.

"Alcatraz" begins with a two-hour debut tonight at 8 p.m. on Fox.

Other stars: Parminder Nagra as Lucy Banerjee; Santiago Cabrera as Jimmy Dickens; Jonny Coyne as Warden Edwin James; Jason Butler Harner as Associate Warden E.B. Tiller.

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About the blogger

Brooke Cain isn't always proud of the number of hours she logs in front of the TV, but her loss of brain cells can be your gain. From reality shows to sitcoms to the more serious stuff, Brooke keeps her DVR smoking so that she can help keep you in the know. Brooke also tweets for Happiness is a Warm TV (you can follow @WarmTV) and updates the blog's Facebook page.