Nutty 'Prison Break' saved by writing, acting
November 21, 2005
BY DOUG ELFMAN TELEVISION CRITIC
The Chicago-based TV production "Prison Break" has turned out to be a reliably entertaining thriller, even though when it started, it suffered a few absurd bumps. And not just that a guy robbed a bank in order to get jailed in Joliet so he could break his wrongly convicted brother out of Death Row.
Yes, that's crazy, but the show has embraced nuttier things and made them work through movie-quality writing, directing and acting.
It's also both pretty and ugly. Pretty, because it's shot with cinematic care and camera crews. Ugly, because it's concerned with violent prisoners in a cold fortress.
Environs soon may get greener than Joliet. The title comes true this season, say actors and show executives. The brothers grim will escape and go on the lam around the country. So there's no telling how much longer "Prison Break" will film primarily at Chicago area sets and locations.
Tonight's episode is the next-to-last installment until spring. After next week's show, "Prison Break" goes off the air for months, possibly so Fox can bring it back during the May sweeps ratings period. Both this week and next, the previous week's episode will air first, at 7 p.m., followed by the new one.
As the show stands, Michael (Wentworth Miller) has enlisted or been forced to include a group of prisoners in his plan to sneak brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) and himself out of Joliet.
Miller, a picture of calm, confident smarts, has been perfectly cast. An architect, Michael planned this escape long before he was arrested. He had blueprints of Joliet tattooed on his body so he'd have access to them on the inside. He enlisted a sham wife to bring him a security card during a false conjugal visit.
On and on Michael's extraordinary strategies went, as we've seen in flashbacks. Then, in the first episode this season, he walked into a bank with a gun in order to get caught and imprisoned in Joliet, where he has encountered obstacles that he has overcome with dirty deals and ingenuity.
At first, I wasn't sure "Prison Break" would be believable. The outlandish part isn't that the vice president of the United States is conspiring to make Lincoln a scapegoat for the murder of her brother. She and her co-conspirators are devilish but human.
And it was only slightly a stretch that Michael coincidentally once worked for Joliet as an architect, giving him access to the blueprints for the joint. All of that is forgivably intricate stuff, because the show is finely shot, allowing for suspension of disbelief.
Where "Prison Break" went over the edge once was when two Secret Service types assassinated a bishop, because the bishop merely was thinking about trying to persuade the governor not to execute Lincoln. To me, it still seems easier for the vice president's men to hire a guy in prison to shiv Lincoln for $200.
Barring that, "Prison Break" has done a convincing job of detailing the sinister motivations of two sets of bad guys: the scumbag criminals on the inside, the political villains on the outside. Making the show even more complex are friends and family of the brothers who have been getting to the bottom of the political scheme.
As large as this web of intrigue is, "Prison Break" is easy to follow and efficient at fleshing out each character. This is a remarkable testament to the show's writing, directing and pacing, considering the size of the ensemble cast and the many characters' individual traits and motivations.
Of course, "Prison Break" faces a dilemma, being named "Prison Break." It's feasible Michael could succeed in freeing Lincoln, while remaining stuck behind bars to plan a new escape for himself. But producers have promised both brothers will get out of Joliet this season, and that could be within the next week -- or in May.
I'm looking forward to Michael and Lincoln being on the run. If "Prison Break" is filmed this well on the outside, it could get more cinematic as a "Fugitive"-style adventure, along with its black-tie government conspiracy that, at its best, resembles the claustrophobic collusions of "The X-Files."
Although the show may have to be renamed at some point. "Prison Broke" won't do. Neither would "After Prison Break." It's a conundrum.