J.J. Abrams gets lost on another island; 'Napoleon Dynamite' pre-wired for success

Jan 15 2012 - 8:48am

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JAMES DITTIGER/FOX
Jorge Garcia as Doc and Sarah Jones as Rebecca in the premiere of “Alcatraz,”
debuting Monday on KSTU Channel 13.
JAMES DITTIGER/FOX
Jorge Garcia as Doc and Sarah Jones as Rebecca in the premiere of “Alcatraz,”
debuting Monday on KSTU Channel 13.

They say familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of Fox's newest two television shows, "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Alcatraz," it's more like bafflement. Which I mean in a good way, at least at first, with "Alcatraz"; and in a what-the-hell-were-they-thinking? way for "Napoleon Dynamite."

In the case of "Alcatraz," which kicks off with a special two-hour episode Monday, the familiarity stems from the fact that J.J. Abrams, the producer of "Lost," is back with another show about a mysterious and perplexing island.

This one, though, is anything but imaginary. Alcatraz Island, just a mile and a half off Fisherman's Wharf in the San Francisco Bay, served as a federal prison for nearly a century. At first a military prison, for the last three decades it served as a sort of domestic Guantanamo Bay, a virtually escape-proof penitentiary housing America's most hard-core gangsters. Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Creepy Karpis and Whitey Bulger all served time there.

It wasn't just the inmate population, however, that gave Alcatraz its reputation. The place was cold and spare, whipped by the frigid bay winds and governed by a harsh administration that, for many years, even prohibited the inmates from speaking. Yet it was also tantalizing, torturously within sight of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, close enough that the men lying in their cells at night could hear party sounds from Fisherman's Wharf.

But Alcatraz was also expensive. And in 1963, vexed by the high cost of running an island prison where food, fuel and even water had to be shipped in by boat, the feds closed it down. Since 1973 it has been a wildly popular national park. More than a million visitors a year visit the decrepit old prison buildings.

If you're guessing that Abrams, who specializes in wildly paranoid sci-fi fare like "Lost" and "Fringe," is not making either a historical documentary or a PBS postcard to parks, you're entitled to an Official Junior TV Critic Badge. (It gets you a special discount on DVDs of the final 15 "Gilligan's Island" reunions.) "Alcatraz" is a spookily intriguing combination of crime drama and conspiracy theory.

It starts with pugnacious blond San Francisco homicide detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) bristling over being bumped off a murder case by an officious and tight-lipped FBI agent (Sam Neill). Her indignation turns to confusion when fingerprints she collected at the crime scene turn out to belong to an Alcatraz inmate who died three decades ago.

Driven in part by cop territorialism and in part by family curiosity -- both her grandfather and uncle worked as Alcatraz guards -- Madsen enlists the aid of a historian of the prison (Jorge Garcia, "Lost") to try to figure out what's going on. They soon discover that the inmate is still alive, committing other murders ... and he's not the only "dead" Alcatraz alumnus doing post-graduate work.

From there it's a quick jump into official corruption, cover-ups, secret spy stations and clandestine prisons. If Abrams' other shows are any guide, we can eventually expect time travel, parallel universes and, eventually, utter incomprehensibility. (Not to mention torture around the office water cooler by militant fanboys insisting they can explain everything if you would just background yourself by reading the collected works of Jules Verne and the first 50 pages of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead.")

But all that is probably two or three seasons away. For now, "Alcatraz" is a sinister bag of sinister pleasures. The moody atmosphere is twitchily illuminated by the presence of Jones, who played a creepily cute little Naziette a couple of years ago on "Soldiers of Anarchy." Her pairing with her ursine co-star has an interesting chemistry to it despite the obvious lack of the sexual tension that usually undergirds male-female buddy combos.

*****

When it comes to "Napoleon Dynamite," which debuts tonight, there's no need to wait for the leap into unfathomability; it's pre-wired.

The cult appeal of the show's inspiration, a deadpan 2004 film about a nerd and his slobby family, was always completely inexplicable and remains so now that it's been turned into a cartoon series.

If you were reduced to hysterical laughter by the concept of herbal breast-enlargement cream in the film, you will likely be so again by the superpower-conveying acne medicine in the TV show.

If not, well, welcome to Normal Town.

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