The prison drama is a venerable genre going back at least to early classic films like The Big House (1930), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and Brute Force (1947). Often the most violent films of Hollywood's classic era, they tended focus either the incorrigible criminal or the system that further brutalized him. 

In more recent films, Clint Eastwood attempts an Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Tim Robbins crawls his way out of the Big House in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Madea Goes to Jail circa 2006. (For a big list of prison movies, try this site.) Audiences have long had a fascination with the people on the other side of the prison doors where society consigns the worst of its citizens. 

Understandably, with its need for ongoing sympathetic characters, television hasn't spent much time behind bars; I can think of only one series, Prison Break, that was all about doing hard time. But now, with Fox's new series, Alcatraz, the prison drama takes a daring leap—into the past.

The very definition of high concept programming, the series is premised on the revelation that when the notorious prison was closed down in 1963, the violent prisoners weren't really transferred elsewhere—everyone on the island in San Francisco Bay disappeared.  Worse, they are reappearing in the present day to resume their murderous ways on an unsuspecting public.  

That's the discovery of police detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, looking about ten years too young for a such a seasoned officer) when, during a murder investigation, a fingerprint is connected to an Alcatraz inmate thought long dead. She meets Dr. Diego Soto (Lost's Jorge Garcia) who literally wrote the book on the prison's residents and they go to the island, now a tourist attraction, to look for clues. 

That's when they stumble upon a secret government unit headquartered deep in the prison's bowels, Batcave-like, with modern equipment and headed by a permanently sour FBI agent, Emerson Hauser, played by the redoubtable Sam Neill in a somewhat mannered performance. Hauser, we soon learn, was a young prison guard the night the disappearance occurred and has apparently been on the case every since.

He explains the astounding facts to the pair and Rebecca convinces Hauser that she and Soto can help him in his quest to capture the now reappearing convicts. The series soon reveals itself as one of those shows that tries to hook its audience on a deep mystery that likely won't be fully revealed or resolved for years, should the show last that long, while keeping it hooked with individual episodes focusing on a single prisoner each week. So, yes, viewers may be forgiven for thinking that, with it's flashing back and forth between the present and the now in vogue Mad Men era of the early 1960s, this feels like a show composed of used parts from other shows.

So far that's what's happened in the first episodes. In the pilot, Jack Sylvane, the inmate whose prints Rebecca identifies, wakes up in a room on Alcatraz in the present day and finds his way off the island, seemingly assisted by unknown enablers, and it's his murderous actions that put the detective on his trail. 

The actor playing him, Jeffrey Pierce, was so leading man handsome, I figured he couldn't be a real killer, but soon enough, he's shooting cops and others on his revenge list. Several times the episode flashes back to Sylvane's prison days where we learn a few things about his background and see the brutality of the administration, including Deputy Warden E. B. Tiller, one of his present day victims and an old friend of Hauser. 

Sylvane seems as much a victim as bad guy and when Hauser's unit finally brings him in, rather than taking him to a standard Federal facility, Hauser escorts him to a bunker deep in the woods whose doors lead to a gleaming, high tech prison where, without a hearing or other legal process, he is returned behind bars. What gives?