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Get 'Lost' In J.J. Abrams' Latest Show 'Alcatraz'

Timothy Olyphant (left) and Walton Goggins return for season three of <em>Justified</em>, along with a slew of guest stars including Carla Gugino and Neal McDonough.
Prashant Gupta
Timothy Olyphant (left) and Walton Goggins return for season three of Justified, along with a slew of guest stars including Carla Gugino and Neal McDonough.

Let's begin with Justified – because, frankly, that's the one that's got me the most excited.

This is a series that ended its previous season about as brilliantly as you can end one: With Timothy Olyphant, as Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, and Margo Martindale, as backwoods drug-kingpin matriarch Mags Bennett, sitting down for a drink of home-made moonshine. I won't say what happened next — but as a piece of TV drama, it was absolutely, unforgettably, deliriously perfect.

So now, on Tuesday, comes season three. Perhaps, after Margo Martindale won a Supporting Actress Emmy last year for her season-long role as Mags, Graham Yost and rest of the production team at Justified had a hard time imagining a single actor who could come in and command attention the way she did. What they've done, instead, is load the deck with one great actor after another — like a relay race, with another familiar, exciting face showing up every week.

I'm not kidding. I've seen the first episodes of this new season of Justified, and the ratio is more than one great guest star per week. In the opener, there's Neal McDonough, from Boomtown and Band of Brothers, as a Detroit gangster moving to Harlan County to expand his empire. In episode two, there's Carla Gugino, who starred in TV's Karen Sisco, another series based on stories by Elmore Leonard. And in episode three, there's Pruitt Taylor Vince from The Walking Dead as Glen Fogel, a local thug who operates out of a pawn shop.

It's clear they're having fun in the first few episodes. They even make a sly wink to Breaking Bad, one of the best shows on television. And Jere Burns, who plays Jesse's ineffectual group therapist on that series, is in this season of Justified as well. It's like a convention of great actors from great TV shows – the roster of regular and guest stars, this season, includes alumni from Deadwood, The Shield, Dexter, Lost, The Walking Dead, and 24.

And this season, already, is serving up an ending that's as tense, and as clever, as last season's showdown with Mags. And it comes at the end of a regular episode — proving, almost boasting, that Justified, when shooting to entertain its audience, has ammo to spare. The writing, the acting, the directing — everything on Justified justified its place on my 2011 Top 10 list. At the end of 2012, I suspect it'll be there again.

A show that premieres tonight, though, I'm not yet sure about. It's Alcatraz, the new Fox series from J.J. Abrams of Lost and Alias fame — and its first episode is very mysterious, very intriguing — and could go just about anywhere. It's one of those shows that will take at least one more episode to ascertain how good, and how coherent, it really is.

It wants to be another Lost, and employs multiple time lines and hard-to-read characters while setting up its novel premise. It's set at Alcatraz, both in the present day, and back in the 1960s, when the infamous island prison was emptied and closed down. Except, in this story, that's not what may have happened at all — and eventually, an expert on the history of Alcatraz is pulled into a police investigation to connect the present with the past. While trying to solve one mystery, he stumbles upon another.

The key weapon here is that the expert in question is played by Jorge Garcia, arguably the most universally loved character from Lost -- he played Hurley. And here, his character's a lot smarter, but he's just as casually charming, as he tries to figure out what's going on around him.

In its premiere, Alcatraz leads us down lots of hidden passages and twists and turns — some literal, others figurative. The less said about them, the better, because the enjoyment is in the way this particular TV tale unravels. The problem is, it's hardly begun by the end of episode one, so I really, really need to see more. But I love the premise, the setting, and the co-stars, who include old pros Robert Forster and Sam Neill.

Oh, and the last time I really, really wanted to see more of a J.J. Abrams series before committing to it fully? That was with the premiere of Lost – which, starting with episode two, hooked me for good.

So while I may not be completely hooked by Alcatraz at this point, I'm definitely on the line. And I hope the show, in the coming weeks, reels me in.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.