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"Pilot," "Allen," "Cell Test," "Cute Poison," "English, Fitz or Percy," "Riots, Drills and the Devil (Part 1)," "Riots Drills and the Devil (Part 2)," "The Old Head," "Tweener," "Sleight of Hand," "And Then There Were 7," "Odd Man Out," "End of the Tunnel," "The Rat," "By the Skin & the Teeth," "Brother's Keeper," "J-Cat," "Bluff," "The Key," "Tonight," "Go," "Flight"
by Ian Pugh The elements that make "Prison Break" compulsively watchable are almost painfully easy to locate and describe, but the taut dialogue, compelling characters, and claustrophobic environment--which together bring a renewed vigour to a genre mired in bravado and uneasy partnerships--also make it something of a chore to sift through the supposed complexities that serve as the show's pretext. Begin with the bare essentials that probably constituted the pitch: wrongfully convicted of the murder of the Vice President's brother, death row inmate Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) has quickly burned out his appeals and has less than a month before he's to be executed at Fox River Penitentiary. But there may be hope yet: Lincoln's brother, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), is a structural engineer by trade, and in fact designed Fox River. Intentionally botching a bank robbery, Michael enters the prison sporting an elaborate body tattoo that hides a complete map of the prison grounds--in addition to a series of codes and ciphers that detail what Michael will have to do and with whom he must ally himself in order to bust his brother out.
Taking into account the brilliant minds and elaborate plans apparently at work, the procession of perfect-fitting puzzle pieces that bring Michael into the prison is still a pretty tough pill to swallow, and the week-in/week-out nature of episodic television demands that every single instalment of this serial contain at least one such contrivance that brings him one step closer to escape. Scofield snags a specific screw from a bench in the exercise yard (1.2, "Allen") and, using a convenient guide on his arm, he grinds it into an acceptable size so that it will be able to dismantle the sink in his cell--which will in turn lead him into the prison's catacombs, where he will later (1.6-7, "Riots, Drills and the Devil (Part 1)" and "(Part 2)") drill through the walls using another guide on his arm. (Though not before shutting off the air-conditioning system, thus causing a prison riot that will cover his tracks.) Eventually, we're bogged down by the cleverness of it all, by the countless happenstances and quick-witted bouts of problem-solving that get our heroes out of some unforeseen set of circumstances. Soon enough, they consciously call attention to our willing suspension of disbelief, prompting us to hope that someone will take the Alexandrian solution to this Gordian knot and just leap over the goddamn wall already.
Similar problems plague the vast government shadow operation that put Lincoln behind bars and plans to front a Manchurian candidate (Patricia Wettig) in the next presidential election. Once more, the necessity for consistently compelling fare leads to an impossible number of twists and turns involving presidents, governors, and Secret Service agents that ultimately throw us into a tailspin in our attempts to decipher who's pulling whose strings. At first fascinating in a Winter Kills fashion, this suggestion that the conspiracy is actually beyond comprehension, the perpetual reassurance that there is, indeed, something to be found at the end of this rainbow starts to make you feel a little jerked around. As such, the viewer is forced to retreat to the familiar territory of the prison genre, joining Scofield in discovering a world of jailed mob bosses (Peter Stormare, engaging as ever), asshole guards (Wade Williams), a man who may or may not be a famous criminal (D.B. Cooper (Muse Watson) in this instance), and the constant threat of being shanked by some phantom assailant. And indeed, it's all performed with such unbelievable panache that it creates a desire to completely ignore everything that may interfere with our enjoyment.
Yet there comes a point when the tiresome mazes manage to compound into something broad and understandable, particularly once we realize how often Michael's schemes depend on building relationships, destroying them, and generally fucking up everyone's day in the service of his own sense of right and wrong. It's here where "Prison Break"'s complexity-cum-absurdity at last bears fruit in questioning Michael's service of some form of "the greater good," which is so thoroughly abstract to us as to reveal his essential selfishness. Scofield seems to care little about the conspiracy that surrounds Lincoln's planned execution--his only concern appears to be relieving the guilt dating back to the unpaid debt that landed his brother in this mess. He is completely undeterrable in that quest, even after instigating deadly prison riots and being forced to bring homicidal maniacs into the escape plot--not to mention casually betraying the trust of Fox River's warden (Stacy Keach) and knocking a reformed morphine addict (prison doc and love-interest-by-convenience Sara Tancreadi (Sarah Wayne Callies)) off the wagon. Unfortunately, the series is infinitely more impressed with Michael's machinations than it is interested in exploring their consequences. Again, the assurance that the ends justify the means trumps everything.
Case in point "Brother's Keeper" (1.16), a flashback episode that exhibits a fear of labelling the characters in terms deeper than "good" and "evil." Here we discover that the majority of Michael's prison-breaking crew found themselves in the slammer upon committing some desperate act in the service of their families. The episode is almost poised to offer a pillar of irony or a shade of depth in how it nearly offers Fox River's resident white supremacist/hillbilly rapist (Robert Knepper) the same misunderstood-lover ethos, but while Knepper never resorts to tired stereotypes in his performance, "Prison Break" mainly takes this opportunity to demonstrate the character's complete monstrosity. Thankfully, drawing those kinds of moral lines in the sand doesn't interfere with the prison drama, where the recognition of allies and enemies contributes greatly to the tension. It only becomes a cause of worry in the final episodes of the season, when Scofield's team is at last over the wall. A second season chronicling the daring attempt to escape capture, clear Lincoln's name, and flee the country was expected and necessary, but it would require more nuanced plot and character development than what the series routinely delivered. If we are more than willing to watch these characters for another go-round, compared to what made the first season so successful, the second season's premise simply throws into question how far "Prison Break" can stretch its remaining attributes without snapping.
Packaged in three thinpaks collectively housed in a cardboard slipcase, Fox's DVD release of "Prison Break: Season One" spreads twenty-two episodes out across six discs. The 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced image follows the series' intentions with an appropriately colour-drained presentation that occasionally loses its sharpness when the frame is completely engulfed by dark colours (particularly noticeable in the last episode of the season, "Flight" (1.22)). Pixellation is another minor issue. The Dolby 5.1 audio, meanwhile, accommodates dialogue well, although the musical soundtrack is too often either too quiet (the dramatic score seems spread thin by the multichannel treatment) or too loud (the obnoxious interstitials). Special features launch with an extensive library of audio commentaries, starting with two for the exposition-heavy pilot.
As "Prison Break"'s executive producer and pilot director, the infamous Brett Ratner contributes a characteristically disposable yak-track alongside his frequent editor, the largely-silent Mark Helfrich. Ratner remains relentlessly self-promotional with nothing to show for it, though he spends most of his time assuring us that so-and-so did a great job. As justified as you may be in lobbing jokes at Ratner, don't expect anything more from a parallel commentary with Purcell and series creator Paul T. Scheuring, who have little to add to those platitudes save a few obvious, rote production notes and tiring amusement at their own incredibly lame jokes. Lucky us, we get four more commentaries with them. Williams joins the party for 1.4, "Cute Poison," while the trio is subsequently accompanied by a different group for each half of the two-part "Riots, Drills and the Devil": "Part 1" features Amaury Nolasco (Fernando Sucre, Scofield's cellmate and occasional comic relief), Knepper, and Callies, whereas "Part 2" welcomes Stormare and Nolasco into the fold. Discussions of Knepper's Method acting prompts a few fascinating anecdotes and the presence of the contemplative and genuinely funny Stormare slows down the inanity--but the mutual admiration and self-satisfied laughter still ended up being a little too much for yours truly.
"Part 1"'s group reconvenes for "Brother's Keeper", and Scheuring promises something special, as the cast has not yet seen the finished product. I'm hard-pressed to understand what that something special is--you're better off switching to the other track with director Greg Yaitanes and writer Zack Estrin, who are a lot calmer and reveal a much more palpable vision in terms of how the characters' distant past relates to where they end up. Find further relief in writer and executive producer Matt Olmstead and Silas Weir Mitchell (Scofield's interim cellmate, the aptly-named "Haywire"; he also played the craziest guy on"My Name is Earl" ) as they meet to talk about "Cute Poison." Although they pal around about as much as their commentary counterparts, they exude a genuine understanding of the show's environment and the subtleties of every player's performance. Mitchell, in particular, betrays an uncommon intelligence and attention to detail that makes me curious about how he would operate on the other side of the camera. Lastly, uniformly somnambulant conversations between Robert Mandel and Nick Santora (director and writer on "Riots, Drills and the Devil (Part 1)") along with Bobby Roth, Karyn Usher, and Garry Brown (director, writer and producer of "Odd Man Out" (1.12)) inspire one to go directly to the sixth disc, where the documentaries reside.
Exemplifying his love for cliché, Ratner opens "The Making of Prison Break" (30 mins.) without a speck of irony in his voice: "Once every few years, a show comes along..." et cetera, et cetera. Luckily, his egotistical, credit-hogging antics are largely restricted to the first few minutes, as this doc is primarily composed of interviews with series regulars. Although the actors manage to convince us that they know how to approach their characters, there's an unshakable feeling that they've been told to low-ball their interpretations for fear of alienating their audience with anything too deep. "If These Walls Could Speak: Profile of the Joliet Correctional Center" (9 mins.) is a dry but informative piece that showcases the abandoned prison that served as "Prison Break"'s set; it manages to neatly encapsulate its century-and-a-half of operation without seeming too rushed. "Beyond the Ink" (16 mins.) is an edifying interview with Tom Berg, the tattoo artist who designed Michael Scofield's tat-map. Hired through Ratner (he also designed Francis Dolarhyde's Blake tattoos in Red Dragon), the incredibly talented Berg takes us through the intricate artistic and logical decisions involved in deciding what could be written and drawn on Scofield's body--and, in the process, helps give credence to what can be seen as "Prison Break"'s silliest plot contrivance. Dumbing down the discourse again, "Fox Movie Channel Presents: Making a Scene - Prison Break" (8 mins.) is exactly what you'd expect from a between-movies documentary featured on a movie channel: a strictly superficial gloss on the shooting of the scene in which Scofield is introduced to Haywire. Remove the PR detritus and you're left with the revelation that it was hot, it was cramped, but they got it done. A few ignorable deleted scenes and a series of hyperactively-edited promos--a half-dozen broadcast commercials for the first season of "Prison Break", a teaser for season two, and a trailer for the now-defunct conspiracy-thriller series "Vanished"--wrap up the set. Originally published: August 28, 2007.