Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Prison Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo

Google tells me I'm the first to think of that title. Somehow, I doubt it.

Despite what its ardent fan base will tell you, Prison Break is pretty silly. It's pretty bad at suspending your disbelief (especially when compared to 24). And I think the show's creators are really overestimating just how much people are in love with their characters when they say that everyone's going to love a second season outside of the prison walls (in a word: no).

But I still really enjoy the show. It's goofy fun, and it works well as guilty pleasure. Plus, it's one of the few shows that actually makes me think it might kill the character who's the whole reason for the prison break in the first place. And I am far from the first to write about how 24 makes Prison Break seem even sillier.

But I keep watching the crazy thing. Why?

I think there are two reasons the show works as well as it does (neither is the writing, which is unusual in TV). And this post came to me in a dream (whereas many TV fanatics dream about their favorite shows, I dream about BLOGGING about a show I can take or leave -- nerd life personified?), so bear with me.

The first reason this show works, clearly, is Wentworth Miller. Don't get me wrong. The rest of the show's players are pretty capable, but their performances vary from episode to episode depending on the quality of the scripts. Miller, however, is one of those rare things: a bonafide TV star. Everyone in the cast has great chemistry with him (especially Sarah Wayne Callies as his doctor/love interest), and he manages to infuse the whole thing with a needed dose of gravitas. Even when the show is being completely ridiculous, Miller makes you sort of buy it. I'd love to see what a truly great TV writer like David Milch or Terence Winter could do with the guy.

The second reason this show works is what everyone calls the MacGyver aspect. The tiny little pieces of the breakout that are clearly going to fit together into a much bigger picture when the breakout actually happens can seem sort of chintzy in the moment, but I think they're a big reason for the show's success. What most shows that follow the 24 model lack is a compelling structural reason to exist (check out Heist tomorrow night on NBC and see what I mean -- better yet, don't). 24 avoids this by just throwing everything in its arsenal at the wall and seeing what sticks (plus, most episodes have a "mission" embedded in them somewhere that serves as the driving force of the plot). Most other 24-alikes either embed themselves too deeply in the ongoing storyline (thereby turning off all but the most ardent cultists) or don't find a way to pay off the ongoing storyline from week to week (the Heist pilot has this problem). Prison Break gets around this by introducing a new little piece of the puzzle every week. Though the puzzle piece is in relatively few scenes, it serves as a compelling enough main story to keep those who are checking in for the first time around for more (how, exactly, is Michael going to use that rat/screwdriver/plaque?). Because no one knows the full tapestry, the individual pieces become stories in and of themselves, sucking newbies into the plot. The interpersonal relationships (such as they are) follow later.

Again, this is all not as good as it could be. But I think that someone like a J.J. Abrams or a Tim Minear could figure out a way to take this format (little puzzle pieces standing in for big stories) and really make it sing.

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