Friday, May 19, 2006

Who needs all ten of their toes or all two of their hands anyway?: Prison Break, season one

I feel as though I've written an inordinate amount about Prison Break, but I should probably review the season anyway. I stuck with it, even though I felt the show lost its way and dragged out the plot for a little too long towards the end there.

I hope to get the Best of TV survey up this weekend, but next weekend is probably a more realistic goal. I should be unburied from the stuff I have to do (already, I have to get the Fox and CW schedules up with predictions, the Scrubs review up and the Invasion review up -- not to mention the four additional show retrospectives bearing down on me).

Prison Break is a show that should get some points for sheer daring. Obviously, 24 sort of invented the "one story told over a season" genre, but Prison Break made that formula much, much more specific. You could now focus on one event sufficiently interesting enough to provide entertainment for a whole season (or more). May I suggest the next series of this type be called Haircut? And the networks were obviously noticing. Next season, every other series (seemingly) is a breakneck thriller. Most (if not all) of them will fail. But for now, Prison Break is the show everybody wants to be, which is odd, since it's not even THAT big of a hit.

As I've written before, Prison Break has two big things going for it: the presence of Wentworth Miller and the intricate nature of the break out story, where every episode put a new piece of the puzzle in place. It's going to be interesting to see if the show's writers can come up with a new way to put a puzzle together in season two when all of the characters are on the lam. Because without that, Wentworth's going to have a LOT of heavy lifting to do.

Without its star or unique structure, Prison Break would probably be forgettable. It, quite honestly, never met a cliche it didn't like. The characters talk in cliches. Many of the plots are cliched (someone's handcuffed to someone else? why not chop off their hand?). And essentially every hangup or plot snafu is of the, "HOW DO WE GET TO THE END OF ANOTHER HOUR?!" type.

Despite all of this, I really liked the show, especially the first half that aired before the long break. The second half got a little bogged down, mostly because the plan that Michael (Miller's character) put into place to break out was foiled by. . .a pipe. So he had to hatch a NEW plan, but the writers didn't have time to adequately explain this one, what with the government conspiracies and the prison politics and the near executions to write into every episode. So the second escape felt almost perfunctory, whereas the first one was extremely cool (Michael flooded a tunnel so he could swim through it and tie a rope to a grate! Cool!). When it came time for the final escape (which involved putting on costumes and shimmying over a pole), it felt almost perfunctory.

Now, the writers say they've got everything planned out. I'm sure they do. But they should have realized that when Michael said his backup plan was "suicide," we expected to see nothing less than Michael leading his band of merry prison-breakers through the fires of Hell itself. Shimmying over a pole? NOT the fires of Hell.

But, essentially, all of this is forgivable because this show has the courage of its convictions. It takes itself really, really seriously. I can't decide if that makes the show better or more laughable, but it makes it work as guilty pleasure either way.

This is not a series that should be winning Emmys. It's a show for when you've exhausted the better stuff on the TiVo and you just want to turn your brain off. But if you're a student of the medium, you could do worse to observe a format that's going to become very VERY popular in the years to come than watching Prison Break. Seeing how the writers broke the escape (especially that first, much cooler, escape) into tiny little pieces, tiny little jobs that Michael had to accomplish, will probably give you a better example of how to structure this sort of thing than just about anything else on right now.

I'm not sure how much of season 2 I'll watch. I'll certainly give it an extended shot (and it's not like there's a lot else in that time slot, barring the CBS comedies. . .or Wife Swap if you swing that way). It will be interesting to see if the show can maintain its momentum outside of the prison walls. I'm guessing no, but one never knows. No show has ever tried this huge of a concept shift in season two (Lost came close). It will be interesting to see if the fans follow or jump ship in droves.

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