Alcatraz: Producer Speaks

Elizabeth Sarnoff reveals how JJ Abrams new TV series set on a island with dark secrets is not just a Lost re-run

Alcatraz is one of the most eagerly-anticipated new TV series of the season in the US. Equal parts procedural/sci-fi mythology drama, it is based around the infamous island prison of Alcatraz, involves time travel, tells a good portion of its story through flashbacks, co-stars Jorge Garcia (the once and forever Hurley) and comes from the JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot production company. But says executive producer/writer Liz Sarnoff (who herself spent five years on Lost ) it’s not just Lost in another guise.

In an interview in the new issue of SFX (214, out next week) Sarnoff reveals, “I was really taken with the idea of exploring 1960s Alcatraz. When the idea was brought to me the show was not going to use flashbacks as a regular structural tool. I thought if we’re going to do a show called Alcatraz we better be in Alcatraz and we better be there when the place was up and running and the coolest guys were there.”

The basic concept has prisoners from the ’60s turning up in the present day. Given the networks’ current reticence to develop SF shows that rely too much on episodic arcs (after the failure of Flash Forward and The Event , Sarnoff found a way to create a format that would be standalone and yet slowly build its own mythology. “I feel like it’s a hybrid. Even though we’re catching a bad guy every week, we’re still telling the story of the mythology and what happened at Alcatraz. The flashbacks are very important to say something was going on there. It’s the balance of procedural and mythological storytelling. When a show gets swallowed up by its mythology, it’s not my favourite thing to write or watch.

“Every week one of these guys is coming back and their story is big,” Sarnoff continues. “It’s about what they’re doing in the present day – and they’re doing bad stuff in the present day – and we also have a flashback to what they were doing in Alcatraz. These guys now have a free pass because they are set loose in the world without any constraints. Nobody knows who they are and, theoretically, they don’t exist. Almost all of them are presumed dead. They have a get out of jail free card and can do anything they want. Tracking them down keeps our guys pretty busy and then we have to find ways to further the overarching story and the character stories with that.”

Read the full features, which includes interviews with stars Jorge Garcia and Sarah Jones, in SFX 214, in the shops on 21 September