I trust I’m not ruining this for anyone, but, you know, they finally do bust out of the clink at the end of the first season. You don’t call your show Prison Break only to have your escapees continuously and eternally foiled in their getaway. Indeed, much of the enjoyment of watching Fox’s minor hit from the fall season of 2005 (wrapping up in the spring of 2006 after a lengthy hiatus) derives precisely from the confidence the show’s foreordained terminus engenders. There’s comfort in knowing where it’s all headed beforehand — the fun is in getting there.
Freed from the sort of militantly obscurantist teleology that can trip up shows like LOST or The X-Files (often to the point of wondering whether insanity, and not entertainment, is their true end), we can indulge ourselves in being steamrolled by the hedonistic Saturday afternoon serial rush of each increasingly ridiculous hour of Prison Break, and simply enjoy an oversized entertainment that is at once completely idiotic, and yet somehow never insulting to our intelligence. Prison Break is hardly a great show, but it is great for what it is — a loud brash bit of preposterous pulp, not much unlike its better, more self-serious cousin, 24.
Good hearted ne’er-do-well Lincoln Burrows (likable lunkhead Dominic Purcell) finds himself sitting on death row, days away from the chair, sentenced for a crime he never committed. Having exhausted all possible legal recourse, his brother Michael Schofield (an eternally smirking Wentworth Miller), concocts a scheme to get himself thrown into the same prison with Lincoln, there to launch an intricate plan to get both of them over the walls before the execution date. If it’s one of the stupidest premises for a show you’ve ever heard, you’re not alone — series creator Paul Scheuring admits as much in one of the making of featurettes on the DVD set. The intention is to get you to swallow this lunatic set-up hook, line and sinker, and not only find it all believable, but absolutely necessary — and to continue to do so week after week, even as the show becomes increasingly fantastic. And, damn it, if the show doesn’t succeed at this in gangbusters fashion.
And it’s not hard to put your finger on the exact reasons why, either. As Michael, the superb Wentworth Miller exudes the sort of knowing confidence and relentless charisma that can seduce the desperately hopeless into believing his pipe dreams. With his secretive smirk and steely gaze, he’s a man who seems to be in total control, the one who sees the big picture, has already played out all the angles, at least in his head. He seduces other convicts into the escape plan with strategically dispensed knowledge, only ever telling them what they need to know (or want to hear). And he has one whopper of an ace up his sleeve: as a former engineer, he rather conveniently worked on retrofitting the very same prison he and his brother are now locked up in. Thus, he already possesses the necessary inside knowledge, has already seen the way out, and hence has total faith in the ultimate success of his intricate and precisely drawn scheme. To be sure, he is cocky and somewhat naïve, and soon to be disabused of his notions of what prison is really like. But the undeniable surety with which he goes about executing his plan only reinforces our certainty that the show’s creators know exactly what the show is doing and where it is going. Just as the ever growing group of convict conspirators come to believe in Michael’s scheme, so we too believe more in more in Prison Break itself with each succeeding episode.
The show’s other two big hooks, established from the get-go, are at once more tactile and yet more abstract. First, there’s the obvious, but almost taken for granted, fact of the prison itself (the show is shot on location at the recently closed Joliet Correctional Center). In many ways, this grandiose gothic compound, not Michael or Lincoln, is the real main character of the show, the various inmates, guards and other characters mere extensions of it. It’s the puzzle box that must be cracked, the grand monolithic antagonist that will not yield easily, if at all. Claustrophobic, primal, and just plain heavy, it constantly bears down and closes in, always threatening to quash Michael’s dreams of flight.
The other great…stunt, I guess you’d call it, is the whole escape plan itself, which finds itself literally mapped out for all to see (if only you can decode it) within an impossibly dense total upper body tattoo, the only thing Michael brings with him to prison. Remember the bit about him having worked on the blueprints for the prison? Well, now he’s wearing them, as well as all the key tactics and strategies for the success of the escape, all secreted and embedded in a riot of gothic imagery and obscure script up and down his arms and around his torso. And though this might be the loopiest gag in Prison Break‘s bag of tricks, it’s a doozy and is never less than hypnotic.
But of course, the lynchpin for the entire scheme, which Michael admits to himself but doesn’t totally comprehend, is the people in the prison, many of whom are necessary for the escape’s success. Prison is contained chaos, and as much as Michael tries to control all aspects of the plan, he finds out soon enough that this X-factor of his fellow inmates’ unpredictability could do him and his brother in before they even take a step forward. You can see his steely veneer crack early on as he’s assaulted by various inmates, relieved of a toe or two in an attempt to torture information out of him, or continuously brutalized by the guards.
And yet, it’s precisely this chaotic element that drives the show, especially as more characters join the fray. Michael’s plans hinge on the inclusion of a few key inmates to expedite their flight, and the serendipitous (or unfortunate) involvement of others. At first they are the stock, typically motley array often found in film or television prisons: small time hoods with hearts of gold; disarmingly charming pedophiliac sociopaths; savage Mafia dons; crusty old salts. And though at first two-dimensional, the show is smart enough to give breathing room for these characters to fill out, a few standing out, especially the always awesome Peter Stormare as the slurring, odd duck Mafioso Abruzzi, superb Robert Knepper as the slithery and terrifying T-Bag, and the jovial Amuary Nolasco as Michael’s fiery cellmate Sucre.
Though never less than engrossing when focused on the prison, the show does falter a bit when it veers away to its other narrative strands. Like 24, Prison Break can suffer from over-plotting. Sure, we do need to follow Lincoln’s lawyer (Robin Tunney) as she investigates the frame job that landed her ex-lover in jail, a plot involving nefarious shadowy multinational corporations and the Oval Office. But did we really need to have Lincoln’s estranged son being hunted by maniacal Secret Service agents, framed for murder himself and soon to be carted off to death row as well? (I mean, come ON!) As the season progresses and these subplots threaten to consume huge chunks of screen time and siphon off the urgency of the main plot, Prison Break almost collapses under its own weight. Fortunately, it rights itself quickly during its frantic final episodes, as Michael’s plans threaten to blow up in his face and an earlier than expected escape forces his hand.
So, with this surfeit of overstuffed narrative, it’s no wonder that Prison Break suffers a lack of depth and thematic heft. The usual inquiries into morality, sin, and justice the prison genre so typically inspires (well, excepting Hogan’s Heroes) are curiously absent. Surely no one is watching this show expecting a penetrating thesis on the nature of crime and innocence, but you’d think the oversensitive Michael would voice more concern about the ethical quandaries certain actions and aspects of the plot raises. But any sort of meditative angle probably would’ve have threatened to derail the show’s momentum. Just like Michael himself, Prison Break has little time to waste, and what time it does have is best served sending the plot careening to its conclusion.
So over the wall they all tumble, running off into a second, now somewhat mistitled, season (Prison Broke?). Though of course it remains to be seen how the escapees, and the show itself, fare now that the driving impediment of the prison has been removed from the equation, given the maximalism of the first season, I’m guessing Prison Break will be keeping the lunacy ratcheted up to 11, regardless of where it takes us.
Spread over six discs, the 22 episodes of Prison Break‘s first season are supplemented by several featurettes, which range between a self-congratulatory “Making Of…” with interviews of cast and crew, to a genuinely captivating look at the tattoo artists who designed the elaborate blueprint / body art for the Michael character. Several episodes contain alternate commentaries, the pilot episode saddled with an ingratiating and self-important track by Hollywood hack Brett Ratner (who directed the pilot), offset by a separate track with creator Paul Scheuring and Dominic Purcell having a ball reveling in the ludicrousness and excitement of the show’s setup. As the first season reveals, this latter view was the prevailing aesthetic, good for the viewer and better for the show itself. Prison Break would’ve been a resounding failure if it ever took itself too seriously.