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Alcatraz: J.J. Abrams's latest escapist fare

It tells a story shrouded in mystery, meant to unravel over time – and it's even set on an island – but the team behind J.J. Abrams's latest television venture wants viewers to know that Alcatraz is not Lost. Nor is it lost, they say, despite a shakeup in its creative team and a rejigging of the pilot before it airs on Monday.

"I'm not going to compare anything to Lost, because it's a mistake to try to repeat anything you've done before," says Jack Bender, an executive producer and director on Alcatraz, who also served those functions on Lost for its six seasons. In fact, he insists his new show is unlike anything he or Abrams have done before. "I always say I'd rather fall off a cliff than just kind of drift away."

The pilot starts off like a typical procedural television drama: There's been a murder, and investigators are called in. But when fingerprints at the scene match those of a long-dead Alcatraz inmate, things get interesting. (At least, the show's creators hope they do.) It turns out that in 1963, on the night 302 inmates and guards were to be transferred out of the closing prison, the whole group simply vanished. Now, they're coming back – one by one, week by week.

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"You're sort of, like, chasing these ghosts," says Parminder Nagra, the former ER star who plays government agent Lucy Banerjee. "They disappeared and now they're here and now you don't know where they are. But we know what they did."

The series is set in two time periods: the past, when Alcatraz was a working prison; and the present day, as four investigators (Nagra, Sam Neill, Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia) try to unlock the mystery.

Walking onto the Vancouver-area set is a bit surreal. The made-for-TV Alcatraz evokes the real deal: a cavernous, bone-chilling edifice housing cells stacked upon cells, with standard-issue toilets and sinks, peeling paint and the odd personal touch – some books, a guitar. There's also a present-day control room in the Alcatraz dungeon, where gleaming modern-day equipment clashes with the cold stone walls of the notorious prison.

The real San Francisco prison has been closed for almost 50 years, but continues to inspire popular culture of all kinds, as both a setting and a metaphor for prison horrors. Abrams obviously isn't anywhere close to being first at this table, and some critics and bloggers have been wondering if he will simply apply his multilayered supernatural formula (which sold audiences on Lost) to the storied prison.

The Lost comparisons are inevitable. But an apparent difference in creative philosophies offers a window into the new show's behind-the-scenes troubles. Original show runner Elizabeth Sarnoff was quoted last summer saying that she and Alcatraz's creators "totally embrace" the series' similarities to Lost. In November, however, reports surfaced that production on new episodes had been halted as Sarnoff stepped aside as head writer (she remains an executive producer). There were rumours of extensive reshoots, and the pilot that airs next week has been altered from the original.

Speaking to The Globe and Mail from Los Angeles earlier this month, Bender said that Alcatraz is "a very challenging formula" and that the show's creative problems were about nothing more than the complex premise. "It was clear that the growing pains of the show were better in the hands of somebody else," says Bender (who takes pains to add that he and Sarnoff remain friends).

In Vancouver, meanwhile, the actors steered clear of the thorny subject of creative differences, and carefully answered questions about how much they know about the plot – and their own characters' background and trajectory. Like Lost, Alcatraz is meant to unfold in stages, even for the actors.

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"I like being in the dark about where stuff's going," says Garcia, who's been through it before as Lost's Hurley. This time, he geeks out as a present-day Alcatraz historian who teams up with San Francisco Police Department detective Rebecca Madsen (Jones). "We're still trying to figure out who's the guy who's working the levers and turning the knobs on the whole thing," Garcia adds. "[I]haven't been able to figure it out yet."

Most of the cast members have been to Alcatraz, a U.S. National Parks Service-run museum that attracts throngs of tourists. For Neill ( The Tudors), that visit was long ago, but also unforgettable.

"It's slightly disturbing that such a dark place where dark things happened is a kind of place where people take photos of each other with their Instamatics," Neill said, after a long day of shooting in Vancouver – which doubles for San Francisco in the series (with locations ranging from school playgrounds to the beach at Spanish Banks). "But it's also sort of beautiful in the middle of this lovely bay. It's full of ironies. Irony on irony."

Neill's role as a government investigator who has been involved in the Alcatraz mystery from the beginning has had him thinking about the prison's hold on our imaginations, and the history of the place. "It's so extreme – and cruel too – to isolate people, but in full view of the world. And they have the world to look at, you know, a normal world. It must have been torture. It must have been really torture to just look out the window and see real life. There's something awfully kind of bleak about that."

Bender, who has been spending a lot of time in Vancouver, says bleak is good – at least in terms of the show's aesthetic. He even welcomes the rainy weather. "If the look of this show was always wet and grey, that would be a great thing, just in terms of a creepy vibe."

Alcatraz premieres Monday on CITY-TV and Fox at 8 p.m. ET/PT. Check local listings.

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