You two have the most dysfunctional idea of love I’ve ever seen.
— Veronica (Robin Tunney), “Pilot”
Minutes after his arrival at Fox River State Penitentiary, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) meets a corrections officer just as cartoonishly menacing as those you’ve seen in the movies. “The Ten Commandments don’t mean a box of piss in here,” Captain Bellick (Wade Williams) tells the new inmate. “We got two commandments and two only: The first commandment is you got nothing coming.” And the second? “See commandment number one.”
“Gotcha,” Michael says, his blue eyes pulsing with amusement. “Just trying to fly low, avoid the radar, boss. Do my time and get out.” So far, so okay. But then Bellick speaks again (“There isn’t any flying below my radar”), and it’s clear just where Prison Break falls on the rehash-to-send-up continuum: it’s all about the cliché.
In the first two episodes, writer/creator Paul Scheuring serves up an array of chestnuts, including, “You’re already dead to me” (angry teen to his death row inmate dad) and, from the prison’s resident mob boss, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Prison is overpopulated with familiar characters as well, like the warden (Stacy Keach) who wants something from the new prisoner, and the aging inmate (Muse Watson) over-invested in his pet. And as the title reveals, the escape plot is in motion from Episode One. This is a weekly Shawshank, tweaked to pull in the younger, less schmaltzy set.
To that end, Scheuring tries hard to make Fox’s latest suspense drama hip and humorous. Michael is almost cheeky as he robs a bank at gunpoint (his way of breaking in to prison, so as to get his brother out), and the teller’s deadpan explanation that she can’t open the vault because the branch manager is at White Castle (“They serve those little square burgers”) is straight out of Dark TV Comedy 101. Once inside, the burden of humor shifts to Michael’s friendly cellmate, Fernando (Amaury Nolasco. A model prisoner allowed conjugal visits with his girlfriend, Fernando seeks another word for “love” while penning a proposal. “What’s the context?” Michael asks. “The ‘I love you so much I ain’t never knocking over a liquor store again’ context. Except, you know, classy.” Michael’s answer is aptly vague: “Try passion.”
This is something Michael has in abundance, all channeled into his outlandish plot to free Lincoln (Dominic Purcell, as the death row dad) from Fox River. A structural engineer who knows something about the prison’s floor and security plans, he has just 30 days to get the job done before his brother will be executed. Linc the Sink (as he’s known inside) was convicted of killing the Vice President’s brother, and initially both Michael and Lincoln’s old girlfriend Veronica (Robin Tunney) believed he was guilty. Lincoln swears otherwise (“Whoever it was that set me up wants me in the ground as quickly as possible”), and since the series cuts frequently to illustrative flashbacks and the current shady machinations of two Secret Servicemen anxious to see the execution go on as scheduled, odds are good big brother’s telling the truth.
As Veronica is now digging into the case, she’s in jeopardy, too. In a Gatsby-ian bit of blocking, she meets with a nervous potential witness in the shadow of the new Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park. While they whisper, one of the Fountain’s videotaped faces looms behind them, seeing all. Subtle and unsettling, the scene is undercut by a tired reveal of those sinister agents, who are watching from afar.
Indeed, as locations go, Scheurling got lucky. Prison action is shot at 147-year-old Joliet Correctional Institute, which once housed serial killer John Wayne Gacy and closed up shop three years ago. Even as it’s representing this comic book world, the Joliet complex manages to intimidate. Alas, the same can’t be said of Prison Break. For every step forward (intricate plotting, Wentworth’s engaging lead performance), the show also manages to stumble back (rote subplots, incessant lame dialogue as exposition). If we exchange “blueprints” for “plot,” Lincoln sums up the series’ problem best: “You may have the blueprints of this place, but there’s one thing those plans can’t show you. People.” The good and bad guys swirling around Michael might cry, fight, screw, and bleed, but they still look like cardboard to me.