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There's a compelling twist at the end of the two-hour premiere of J.J. Abrams' new series

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January 17, 2012 at 07:39 AM EST

The much-anticipated premiere of exec producer J.J. Abrams’ latest project saw the warm glow of prime-time television last night.

Blending TV’s most reliable genre formula (police procedural) with a sadly less-predominant genre (far-reaching government conspiracy), Alcatraz managed to squeeze the series’ premise, character exposition, two separate story lines, and a couple of legitimately awesome twists into its two-hour debut — not a bad haul for a premiere.

Seemingly not as ambitious as Lost but promising the same more-revelations-lead-to-more-questions type of setup, the series actually seems more akin to The X-Files — that is, if the good guys were recruited by the Cigarette Smoking Man instead of working against him. (Sam Neill is delightfully menacing as the morally ambiguous FBI agent Emerson Hauser who never reveals more than absolutely necessary.)

The series opens in 1963, when two dumbfounded guards discover that 256 Alcatraz inmates and 46 guards disappeared into thin air just before the prison shut down. Jump ahead to present-day San Fran, where Alcatraz is just another tourist pit stop between the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory and Golden Gate Bridge. As a tour guide explains how no one ever escaped from the Rock, a little girl wanders into an off-limits area and screeches upon discovering — gasp — a sleeping man!

Seemingly more confused than transient, the handsome fella stumbled around Alcatraz growing increasingly alarmed at what he found. In case you had somehow missed the Alcatraz advertising blitz and weren’t aware that this show was about 1960s convicts who inexplicably time travel to the present, the show spelled it out for you when he got on the ferry ride back to civilization. Flipping through a “Prisoners of Alcatraz” book conveniently left unattended, the man finds his own picture among the pages.

After 49 years, convict Jack Sylvane has returned to Alcatraz — seemingly unaware of what has happened to him — with nothing but a wad of cash and a locker-room key in a trench coat to guide him.

And in case you really, really needed verification, we jumped back to 1960, where we saw Sylvane as a prisoner, learned he had a wife, and found out that the Rock’s Deputy Warden E.B. Tiller seemed to relish tormenting him.

Back in 2012, two cops are engaged in a rooftop chase. The high-flying crook makes a spectacular jump from one ledge to another, but the first cop to follow suit wasn’t so lucky: He barely managed to grab onto the ledge, but the criminal doubled back to ensure that his near-miss turned into a fatal fall. Cop No. 2 — our series protagonist — made the jump but she wasn’t able to save her partner.

Still stinging from her loss a few weeks later, Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, a purdy blonde you may recall as a recurring face on Sons of Anarchy and Big Love) tells her boss she’ll pick a new partner at some point, but she gladly uses a new homicide as an excuse to avoid choosing one.

The murder victim is E.B. Tiller, a former deputy warden at Alcatraz, who took a knife to the chest. But before Madsen could even dust for prints, an enigmatic FBI agent (Sam Neill of Jurassic Park and The Piano) descended upon the crime scene to arrogantly tell the local lawmen the homicide is a federal case. Unable to stifle her curiosity, Madsen grabbed a smashed photo from the crime scene on the way out.

NEXT: When Madsen Met Hurley… err, Dr. Soto

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