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Moderated by Jon Hein and Ralph Cirella of The Howard Stern Show, Fox’s Alcatraz presentation at Comic-Con International opened with a screening of the pilot episode. A mid-season replacement from Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams and executive producer Elizabeth Sarnoff, the drama centers on another mysterious island, the federal prison often referred to as “The Rock.”
The pilot follows Rebecca Madsen (Sons of Anarchy’s Sarah Jones), a tough homicide detective investigating the murder of a warden who worked at Alcatraz when it officially closed in 1963. When the fingerprints of a long-dead inmate are found at the crime scene, Madsen enlists the help of an expert on all things Alcatraz, Dr. Diego Soto, played by the immensely likable Jorge Garcia (Lost). Just as the pair’s investigation starts to get strange, Madsen is sidelined by the mysterious Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) and his young associate Lucy (Parminder Nagra).
Madsen and Soto soon learn from Hauser that the official story of Alcatraz closing because of budget cuts is a lie. The actual reason is because 302 prisoners and wardens vanished without a trace one fateful night in 1963. Hauser also has one more bombshell: These dangerous prisoners are mysteriously reappearing after 50 years, looking exactly as they did the night they vanished.
Sarnoff, director Jack Bender and cast members Sarah Jones, Jorge Garcia, Parminder Nagra, Jason Butler Harner and Santiago Cabrera were present for the Q&A following the screening.
The drama, which is set on a mysterious island, utilizes flashbacks as a storytelling device and counts Garcia as a prominent cast member is sure to draw comparisons to another Bad Robot production. When the screening concluded, Sarnoff was asked about the similarities and whether she embraced the comparisons to her previous television series Lost. “I think we totally embrace that,” she said. “Certainly there’s no better show. We’re our own show. We want to do our own thing, but obviously we’re thrilled to be doing something else that will hopefully be somewhere near it.”
For all the similarities between the two shows, Sarnoff spoke about a few of the ways in which they differed. “The big difference between this show and Lost I think is that this show has an incredibly aggressive story engine, and these guys are back and there’s going to be a bad guy they catch every week, and so that is certainly the biggest difference,” she said, adding, “And then we want, you know, we want to answer these questions, we want to explore the mythology.”
Bender, another Lost alum, was quick to point out another difference: “And, of course, Jorge won’t be building a golf course.”
Sarnoff told the crowd that the idea for the show came originally from writers and Co-Executive Producers Steve Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt, who brought it to Abrams. “J.J. asked me if I would help with it and I was so intrigued and excited about the idea,” she said. “I was just thrilled to jump on board.”
Bender, who was brought in after the pilot had been filmed, spoke about Alcatraz as though it were another member of the cast. “Alcatraz, I remember as a little kid always scared the crap out of me,” he said. “It’s dark. It’s ‘The Rock.’ It’s the island where all these bad people were in the middle of beautiful San Francisco Bay, so I think it still has that allure for people.”
Jones especially loved the experience of working and shooting on Alcatraz. “I hope we can go back as much as possible,” she said. “It’s just an incredible experience.”
Garcia was asked about reuniting with Abrams, Sarnoff and others from Lost. “I definitely love working with these people for one thing because they make the television that I like to watch,” he said.
The cast, which also includes Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Heroes) and Sam Neill, (Jurassic Park, The Tudors), is definitely the best part of the show. When asked what it was like to work alongside Neill, Garcia didn’t hold back. “He’s this very sophisticated man,” he said. “He drinks wine, he’s been in the business a long time and stuff, but then, he’ll turn around and be like the uncle who tells you to pull his finger, and that is the beauty of Sam.”
For her part, Parminder Nagra (Bend It Like Beckham) was eager to know more about the twists and turns ahead for her character Lucy. “I’m thrilled and really excited to see what happens and you know I’ve had various conversations with Liz [Sarnoff] just to — you know, I think she’s going to be a bit of a tough nut to crack if I’m on point, but I’m excited to see what happens.”
Known primarily for his award-winning work in theater, Harner plays the villainous Tiller, one of the wardens on Alcatraz in the flashback sequences. “Everyone keeps asking me what it’s like to play ‘the bad guy,’” he said. “I just think he’s the ‘not-so-good guy.’”
The panel closed with Bender talking about what it was that first drew him to Alcatraz. “I remember when I first saw the pilot of Lost, one of the things that drew me to the show, aside from how brilliant the pilot was, was that cast and I wanted to spend time on that island with those actors and those people and get to know those characters,” he said. “The bottom line is I felt this cast — I felt a similar feeling about this cast. This is an exceptional group of actors and that’s not true all the time.”
Alcatraz will debut in early 2012 on Fox.