Monday, April 16, 2007

Prison Break, Season 2

Prison Break, I’ll happily admit, is not an especially difficult show to review. Its flaws are glaring, its strengths are easy to pinpoint because they stick out like a sore thumb, and nothing about it is complex or layered. Nonetheless, it’s quite difficult to offer
my own critical viewpoint on a conceit so insane as a gladiator prison. Yes, a gladiator prison. What is there to be said about that? Shall I consider its possible implications for the coming season? How it might affect character dynamics, or themes, or plot directions? How? *cries*

Seriously, though. Prison Break’s first two seasons may have been stupid, but at least they were the stupid we knew. Ensemble-based prison breakout? Its been done, most famously with The Great Escape. And season two’s basic premise is The Fugitive, except plural. (Tommy Lee Jones’ response to Ford insisting he’s innocent – “I don’t care!” – is even a perfect summing-up of Agent Mahone’s character on Break.) But a gladiator prison? Merely the fact that Break’s writers have gone there belies any notion of predicting their intentions. Clearly they see themselves as having no distinguishable boundaries, and one can only make wild stabs at what they might have planned for next season.

First, though, lets take a look at the season past. I've already gone into considerable detail on why this season of Prison Break has been lacklusture, but there are a couple remaining points I’d like to make. First of all, the show has utterly wasted its great cast, not just by giving them bad material – that’s obvious – but also by so rarely bringing them together. These characters worked in season one because they bounced off each other well and the actors had good chemistry. This season, they were most kept to their independent plot strands, and only reunited by way of a sweeps event. Even characters who existed in the same plot strand, such as Mahone and Agent Kim, rarely had scenes together – they just growled at each other over the phone. Phone conversations are fundamentally less dramatic than actually bringing two characters together. Similarly, Michael and Mahone could have made for a great rivalry if Fitchner and Miller had ever been allowed more scenes together (you might quibble that since Mahone was trying to kill Michael the two could hardly have a chat, but a show as ridiculous as Prison Break could easily have found ways around this).

Second, by softening Mahone and Kellerman and giving them both tragic back stories, and with the loss of Patricia Wettig to Brothers & Sisters, eventually the show was left with no legitimate villains for the audience to hate. Agent Kim was obviously a replacement stuck in after the loss of Wettig, and his character was never able to rise above that (despite an energetic performance from Reggie Lee). Also, Kim’s constant failure to catch the brothers made him appear useless rather than threatening.

Anyway. Onto season three, and that finale.

As Todd already noted in his recap, the third season will have Michael once again trying to escape prison, now enlisting the help of Bellick and Mahone. Meanwhile Lincoln will be on the outside, presumably spending the first few episodes working out where Michael has been taken, then once he knows, either helping him from the outside or taking a leaf out of Michael’s book and getting himself in. (I’d guess the latter.) Sucre will presumably join up with Lincoln, as Bellick is the only one who knows where he can find his Maricruz. T-Bag’s level of involvement is less clear; I presume he’ll end up at the gladiator prison too eventually, unless there are plans for a spin-off that I am not privy to. That just leaves Sarah. Well, since actress Sarah Wayne Callis is pregnant, I’m betting Sarah won’t actually show until a ways in. When she does, maybe she’ll hook up with Lincoln. She can’t wait for Michael forever.

This all sounds logical enough, but not especially exciting. What escapades Michael and his new gang might get up to at the gladiator prison I can only imagine – perhaps each week will see a different WWE wrestler making a guest appearance. The idea of teaming up Michael, Bellick and Mahone is admittedly clever, and should make for some entertaining tensions if and when the three are forced to rely on each other. But I hate it when shoes do one episode centred around characters taking part in fights, so if that’s really the idea of the Sona prison, I’m definitely not gonna like the third season. The very idea of Michael being constantly beaten up or at all abused by fellow inmates is, to me, distasteful rather than entertaining. Seeing it happen once or twice over a season is fine, but every episode? That’s a little too realistic for this show. I’m hoping that Sona will prove just a starting off point for season three, not a long-term setting – but I could easily be disappointed.

Then again, General Pan Man (a big ugly guy who appears to be in charge of The Company) had a suggestive line at the end of the finale, in response to an aide saying Scofield will break out again: “That’s exactly what we want him to do.” From this I choose to discern that Sona will only be a significant part of Break for the first half of season three. I could be wrong though – maybe they really are just doing season one all over again, except without any guards. (Todd also took it to suggest that Michael is somehow ‘programmed’ to be an escape artist, which wasn’t something I picked up on, but a little injection of sci-fi sounds like the most interesting plot possibility I’ve so far heard.)

It all makes a kind of sense when you lay it out, but I still can’t see it working as a twenty-two episode season. I foresee the show collapsing under the weight of its stupidity during the third season, losing viewers and not being renewed for a fourth. Creator Paul T. Scheuring has already confessed that the show was only supposed to run for two seasons, an intention that clearly should have been stuck to. I’m certain that the conclusion Scheuring intended would have felt like a satisfying end to the show; as it is, the writers’ attempt at keeping the show going is so obviously tacked on at the last-minute that’s it just stupid – stupider than even Prison Break can get away with. (And that’s a whole either dimension of stupid.)

Further, because it was trying so hard to justify its return, the finale itself ended up rather boring. Little was revealed about The Company or Sona, the show’s two central mysteries. Only Agent Kim and Kellerman met their final fate, and those two were obviously going to die – how about some surprises, like an untimely end for T-Bag? Mahone and Sucre obsessing over their loved ones was just as dull as usual (although the final phone call between Mahone and his wife was surprisingly effective, thanks largely to Fichtner’s expressive voice); not only that, but Sucre and Maricruz looks set to become a major plot point of the next season too. Dragging that plotline even longer exemplifies another problem season three will experience (the last I’ll point out): by the end of ‘Sona’, very little had really changed. The main cast remains the same; the basic format has shifted, yes, but into a peculiar blend of the last two seasons; and The Company is still the ‘big bad’ pulling the strings. Despite Kellerman exposing them at Sarah’s trial, the implication seemed to be that their power was far from diminished – not only that, but they had basically won. It just feels like a complete cheat, on a par with Alias dragging out the Rambaldi mystery for five whole seasons.

I’ll stop now. Perhaps, one might argue, I’m spending too much time and effort critiquing a show that was never intended to stand up to close inspection. But even a mindlessly entertaining show has to have limits on how stupid it can become, or it’s likely to lose sight of everything that made it so entertaining in the first place. Unless season three turns out to be dramatically different from what I’m expecting, Prison Break is all ready a lost cause.

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