You have to hand it to the makers of Prison Break, it sure does what it says on the tin – up to the prison break in series 1 and the getaway in series 2 (not having watched series 3 & 4 I can’t tell you where they go next.) No breaking of the Trades Descriptions Act then, but the question is whether you are so hooked that you can last out 22 episodes to see how they do it, then another 22 to find how they evade recapture.
No doubting the success of series one, which caught Fox Broadcasting by surprise, such that the originally commissioned run was extended by 9 to meet demand. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that even with a lot of advance planning and many resources, Michael Scofield‘s (Wentworth Miller) escape plan to get his framed death row brother Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) out of chokey is fraught with endless obstacles and setbacks – one of which is that they perforce acquire a series of fellow escapees, some of whom are notably dodgy and unreliable company, with at least one out and out psychopath (T-bag Bagwell, played by Robert Knepper) and one mob boss (John Abruzzi played by Peter Stormare.)
Within the prison there is a regime led by gullible governor Henry Pope (Stacy Keach) and the tough nut captain Brad Bullock (Wade Williams) and a cast of thousands in guards and inmates, including key love interest Dr Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies.)
Meanwhile, there is a massive conspiracy going on behind the scenes, such that Linc is just a bit part player in the apparent staged faking of the death of US Vice President Terrence Steadman (John Billingsley) by a conspiracy of wealthy individuals called The Company who pull the strings behind all US decisions. Current VP is Terrence’s sinister sister Caroline Reynolds (Patricia Wettig), who uses Secret Service Agent Paul Kellerman (Paul Adelstein) as her primary tool to ensure Burrows dies and lawyer Veronica Donovan (Robin Tunney) and Linc’s son LJ (Marshall Allman) do not uncover the truth behind the faked murder.
I mention all this because out of an ostensibly simple scenario all manner of plot twists and complications, plus a cast of thousands (a relative few listed above), have been added to extract dramatic tension. Imagine if you will the most intricately arranged pop song you ever heard, which for all the invention, instrumentation and vocal pyrotechnics is still in a box standard 4:4 time – there you have the essence of Prison Break.
Thinking back to how Escape from Alcatraz was filmed, it seems almost naive in its simplicity and minimalism by comparison. But then that is the modern way to add layers of complication and sophistication in recognition that audiences are not afraid of complexity, and will lose interest quickly unless the plot can be fiendishly twisted.
Take as one example the ingenious tattoo Michael has created on his body in advance of his prison sentence for a highly contrived armed robbery. This includes a cunningly disguised plan of the prison and the underground pipes used in the escape bid, not to mention plenty of other information depicted in such a way that it might be accepted without a second look – though much is deciphered in series 2 by too too clever FBI Special Agent Alexander Mahone (William Fichtner.)
You might think this enough on its own, but the writers contrived to made it extra specially tough for Michael by getting him burned such that a key section of the map is lost – requiring him to go loopy long enough to get himself a stretch in the psych ward so he can persuade inmate Charles “Haywire” Patoshik (Silas Weir Mitchell) to recreate the drawing, something Haywire is reluctant to do after a previous spell as Scofield’s cellmate.
So it is that every plot device conceivable can be used and extended to fill out the space available – almost as if the writing teams (headed by creator Paul Scheuring) were setting each other a challenge to see who can make the most appalling fix for the anti-heroes to escape from – and the most creative solution.
Not that Prison Break is in any way tedious to watch, though even with the cat-and-mouse aspect of the plot lines I doubt it achieves the levels of gripping drama than I enjoyed with, for example, House of Cards, Breaking Bad – or indeed the other recent prison drama, Orange Is The New Black. This reminds me that pretty much all the most popular American TV dramas related to crime, its planning and execution, its detection, its aftermath and pretty much any other aspect you care to name. Even the “safe” series like Desperate Housewives involved the occasional bad deeds and intervention from the cops. Perhaps at long long last we’ve hit overkill with these themes and need to move on?
Sharply scripted and well-acted by the vast ensemble, there is nothing about Prison Break that will be less than competent and watchable – which sure makes it better than the many series I’ve given up without completing. However, I will admit that I never for one moment forgot this is scripted TV drama, where by comparison House of Cards invites you into its world but never loosens its grip.
On the plus side, the prison scenes in series one gain a claustrophobia; the issue is that sustaining the momentum over a long series with such a single-minded theme leaves the series tied down by its environment. Lost encountered a similar issue and responded by adding entire new dimensions and heading into the supernatural; maybe PB series 3 – which I’m told ventures into a prison beyond the borders of US soil – finds a new way to present prison escape dramas.
Presumably it must, since there will shortly be a series 5. The secret is knowing when to stop, so a studio exec somewhere must have signed off the not inconsiderable costs of developing and running PB with a strong feel that the characters will not simply live happily ever after and deserve more episodes to explore their lives under the prurient gaze of TV viewing public, before said fickle public starts to develop ennui and viewing figures drop off. We shall see.