DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Our TV critic David Bianculli says it hasn't taken long in the new year, for television to get off on the right foot. This week, he's adding two more shows to his 2012 viewing list.
Tonight, there's the premiere of "Alcatraz," the Fox drama that's the newest series from J.J. Abrams, whose previous shows include "Alias," "Lost" and "Fringe." And tomorrow brings the season premiere of one of TV's best series of 2011, the FX drama, "Justified." Here's David's review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: 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 homemade 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 the 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.
At any rate, 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.
Here's a scene from that third episode in which Raylan, played by Timothy Olyphant, enters the pawn shop in search of another bad guy, but finds Fogel instead.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SERIES, "JUSTIFIED")
TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: (as Raylan Givens) What you got in the back there?
PRUITT TAYLOR VINCE: (as Glen Fogel) Oh, the back room - that's not for customers.
OLYPHANT: (as Raylan Givens) Customer Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens.
VINCE: (as Glen Fogel) So this Wade...
OLYPHANT: (as Raylan Givens) Wade Messer.
VINCE: (as Glen Fogel) ...Messer. He's a fugitive?
OLYPHANT: (as Raylan Givens) He is.
VINCE: (as Glen Fogel) Well, you got a warrant there, Marshall?
OLYPHANT: (as Raylan Givens) This is just a nice, friendly visit.
VINCE: (as Glen Fogel) Afraid, without a warrant, this is as friendly as I get.
OLYPHANT: (as Raylan Givens) Funny, because I came here because I'm looking for my buddy, Wade, but the way you're acting makes me think maybe the person I'm actually looking for, is you. In fact, it just occurs to me, if I was running a scam shipping stolen goods out of town, a pawn shop would be the perfect place to hide the swag in plain sight.
VINCE: (as Glen Fogel) Say, if I ever break bad, I will keep that in mind.
OLYPHANT: (as Raylan Givens) See you around, Glen Fogel.
BIANCULLI: See how much fun they're having there? That break bad is 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 already 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 timelines 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 is a lot smarter, but he's just as casually charming as he tries to figure out what's going on around him.
Here, he's talking to a dedicated San Francisco police officer played by Sarah Jones, and enlisting her in what soon becomes his investigation.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SERIES, "ALCATRAZ")
SARAH JONES: (as Rebecca Madsen) You're the expert. What do you think happened?
JORGE GARCIA: (as Diego Soto) I don't know. The last time on the island, I stumbled across a room that was full of files and boxes and all sorts of stuff I wasn't supposed to see.
JONES: (as Rebecca Madsen) Pier 33, first boat out?
GARCIA: (as Diego Soto) I'll bring the coffee.
BIANCULLI: In its premiere, "Alcatraz" leads us down lots of hidden passages, some literal, others figurative. The less said about them, the better, because the enjoyment here is in the way this particular TV tale unravels. The problem is it's hardly begun to unravel by the end of episode one, so I really, really need to see more.
But I love the premise, the setting and the costars, 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.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website, TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.