By Darren Franich
Updated July 23, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Wendy Redfern/Getty Images

Is Alcatraz the next Lost? You can’t help asking the question. The show comes from Bad Robot productions, home of Lost co-creator J. J. Abrams. The Alcatraz showrunner is iconic Lost writer Elizabeth Sarnoff. One of the show’s stars — arguably the biggest name attached, depending on how often you rewatch Jurassic Park — is Jorge Garcia, Lost‘s lovable Hurley. After a rough pilot season that saw the series picked up as a midseason replacement, Fox hired Jack Bender as an executive producer and director — the same Jack Bender who directed most of the iconic episodes of Lost, including the three-hour finale. And that’s not to mention the plot, which focuses on a mysterious island, features extensive use of flashbacks, and might even (why not?) include time travel.

At today’s Alcatraz Comic-Con panel, Sarnoff was genial about comparisons to that other island show. When asked about the comparison, she said simply, “We totally embrace it. Certainly, there’s no better show. But we’re our own show, we want to do our own thing.” The pilot screened in its entirety for a crowded audience at Hall 20.

This was actually the second time Alcatraz screened at Comic-Con this week. EW’s Sandra Gonzalez talked to some fans after the earlier screening, whose reactions ran the gamut from “It looks very good” to “It looks like a re-hash.”

I’m inclined to agree with both reactions. The most important thing to note about the Alcatraz pilot is that it is decidedly nothing like the Lost pilot. Lost‘s first two hours were a close-up perspective on characters who had zero idea what was happening to them; as far as mythology, there was nothing more complex than a loud roar in the woods and a strange French woman on the radio. Alcatraz, conversely, unloads a fierce amount of backstory in its first hour. Sam Neill — whose clipped line readings as a government hardass earned regular laughter from the audience — starts the show off with a portentous narration describing the disappearance of 302 men from Alcatraz in 1963. This narration is actually repeated later in the episode — an unnecessary amount of hand-holding. Then again, the series’ premise doesn’t quite have Lost‘s initial simplicity: The disappeared 302 men are reappearing, one by one, to undertake tasks for reasons, and persons, unknown.

This makes the Alcatraz pilot feel closer in spirit to the premieres of The Event and FlashForward — which threw a barrelful of mysteries at the audience hoping something would stick. But Alcatraz is more focused than either globe-trotting show: The plot immediately zeroes in on Sarah Jones’ cop, who gets enmeshed in Neill’s special task force. You could argue that the better comparison is another Abrams show, Fringe, which had a historically awkward beginning before evolving into an essential slice of genre TV.

It’s always wrong to judge a show by its pilot, and the addition of Bender clearly indicates that the series may be slightly retooling itself over the next few months. But it’s mildly worrisome that the one character who really pops out in the premiere isn’t even a member of the main cast. Watching the pilot, I found myself rooting for Jeffrey Pierce’s Jack Sylvane, a disappeared Alcatraz inmate who returns to the modern world and embarks on a vengeful murdering spree. (MILD SPOILER ALERT: Sylvane survives the pilot episode, but is currently only credited as “guest cast” on the show’s website. Bump him up to regular status, Sarnoff!)

Sarnoff contrasted the two Island/Abrams shows thusly: “The big difference between this show and Lost is that this show has an incredibly aggressive story engine. There’s gonna be a bad guy they’re gonna have to catch every week. We want to answer these questions. We want to explore the mythology. We want to do flashbacks and see Alcatraz in their heyday.”

“In other words,” joked Bender, “Jorge won’t be building a golf course.”

Alcatraz will debut in January 2012.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich