J.J. Abrams: ‘Alcatraz’ Has a Continuing Story, But Don’t Call It Serialized

Jorge Garcia and J.J. Abrams on the "Alcatraz" panel at the TCA Winter 2012 press tour (FOX)

Jorge Garcia and J.J. Abrams on the "Alcatraz" panel at the TCA Winter 2012 press tour (FOX)

Even though he’s a fan of the serialized form, J.J. Abrams knows that serialization is a tough sell these days. So much so that he and his fellow producers on the new FOX series “Alcatraz” took pains to tell television critics yesterday that the show may have a continuing story, but it will be accessible to those who jump in after it starts.

If the refrain sounds familiar, it’s because Abrams said the same thing four years ago, before “Fringe” started. And we all know how that changed pretty quickly.

But Abrams assured the critics that this won’t happen here. “It was a much more emotional kind of character show from the beginning,” he said about “Fringe,” “whereas this show was much more about a condition and a premise.” He admitted that sometimes you don’t get your best ideas about a show until later on. Even in the case of “Alcatraz,” the pilot was changed to reflect more of a connection between Det. Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and the island. “I think this show has a real opportunity to do both: an episodic kind of case of the week with obviously big questions looming,” said Abrams.

He makes sense, in a way: it’s about the last prisoners to inhabit “The Rock,” who mysteriously disappeared in 1962, coming back one by one, as if no time has passed, to wreak havoc on modern-day San Francisco while they try to settle half-century-old scores.

Everyone on the team who searches for these criminal time-travelers all have a connection to the island, as we see in the pilot episode. Madsen has a connection via her grandfather and uncle, Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) has written books on the topic, and Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) has been searching for the missing bad guys for decades. Even Hauser’s partner Lucy (Parminder Nagra), young as she is, has a connection to the notorious federal prison.

So there will be a baddie of the week element, but a large part of the show will be why the team’s connections exist, where these prisoners went and why, and why they’ve come back.

But, Abrams, who was one of the big creators of the latest serialization wave with impenetrable shows like “Lost” and “Alias”,¬† really wants to make sure people know that the show isn’t like those other ones he helmed.

When asked after the panel if he thinks “serialization” has become a dirty word in TV, he said, “I think it has, which is an unfortunate situation, because I do love it.”

Why did it happen? "I think it's because a lot of serialized shows were sort of purposefully complex and about asking big questions, that they became so quickly impenetrable, and people just said, "oh, I know what they're trying to do." It's a weird thing; I think when there's an authentic mystery rather than just a question being asked, that's what makes you lean forward and make an emotional connection to that and it makes it interesting."

He likes the format so much because “it’s like life; it’s a weird thing to me to feel like things are always wrapped up completely (week-to-week), so I think Alcatraz will allow things to exist over the long term but also have a week to week specific puzzle to solve.

Watch a preview of “Alcatraz,” which debuts Monday, Jan. 16 at 8 pm Eastern:

[iframe http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/tv/Alcatraz/143124/2169486359/Myth/embed 580 476]

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