'Alcatraz': J.J. Abrams reunites with Jorge Garcia for supernatural drama

press-tour-jorge-garcia-jj-abrams.jpgWhen we watched FOX's "Alcatraz" pilot back in May, we were disappointed to learn that it had been shelved for a mid-season premiere. (It's just one of those "Give me more! Right now!" shows.)

At the Television Critics Association Press Tour on Sunday, executive producers and cast members revealed that the mid-season launch actually afforded them to make some improvements upon an already great pilot. The most significant change is in Sarah Jones' character, Detective Rebecca Madsen.

The original concept introduced Madsen as a rather icy, buttoned-up detective with some misconceptions about her family's background and connection to Alcatraz -- she reminded us very strongly of Olivia in early seasons of "Fringe." In the new version, she's loosened up considerably and given a more complicated history with her grandfather, a former inmate of Alcatraz.

"One of the advantages of being a midseason show is... you actually have the time, if you're lucky... to make changes," executive producer J.J. Abrams says. "We wanted to invest more in a specific thing with Rebecca so we had a stronger connection to Alcatraz. Rather than say 'Let's suck it up and move on,' we realized we had the chance to make some changes and improve upon it."

The premise of the season is that a large number of dangerous criminals and guards vanished from Alcatraz Island as the prison was closing, and that they're now reappearing in the present day, as if they time-traveled. This, executive producer Jennifer Johnson says, elevates the series from a traditional crime drama. "[The inmates] have the same venom and the same urgency in the crimes that they're perpetrating that they did in the past before they disappeared," she says.

Given the time-travel aspect, the law enforcement team faces some interesting hurdles. These characters have no friends, no family, no relationships, and no credit card trails. "They don't even know what a credit card is," Johnson adds.

Obviously a major pull for the series is the reunion of Abrams with "Lost" star Jorge Garcia. Garcia says that joining the series was a no-brainer -- his girlfriend was, at the time, writing a book about Alcatraz, and Abrams' involvement sealed the deal. "If J.J. asks me to do anything, I say yes first and read second," he admits.

As for comparisons to "Lost," Abrams says that "Alcatraz" will be easier to follow for a casual viewer with a mystery of the week format as well as a strong mythology threat. And no, the fact that Alcatraz is on an island did not factor into his interest in the concept (yes, the question was asked). "In theory, any land mass is an island, so you could argue any show ever made -- the Mary Tyler Moore show is much like 'Lost,' honestly."

At the heart of the show, of course, is the prison, which functions as a sort of character of its own, coming to life in flashbacks and serving as a looming reminder in the present day. "Just the name puts a shiver down my spine. The charisma of that strange place is something that I believe has permeated this show," says star Sam Neill. Upon visiting the prison, he says he was overwhelmed by the "cruelty of a prison where you sit behind bars looking at something as lovely as San Francisco, and San Francisco's looking at you."

"You feel like you're in a haunted house," adds Abrams. "The look of it and the feel of it. Having filmed in other prisons, this place does not feel like any other prison that I've either visited or served time in."

The series premieres Monday, Jan. 16, at 8 p.m. EST.
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