Prison Break: Season One

It's reboot fever! A nine-episode revival of Prison Break (2005-2009) is currently in production, so I decided it was time to revisit the original show. Instead of individual episode reviews, I'm doing a review of each season. Here's season one.

(This review includes spoilers!)

What happens

Prison Break is about a brilliant structural engineer named Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) who carries out a complicated and risky plan to break his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), out of Fox River State Penitentiary before his execution for a crime he didn't commit. Michael has himself tattooed with disguised prison blueprints, chemical formulae and other significant information he will need, and then he commits armed robbery and allows himself to be caught. While in prison, Michael encounters and overcomes one insurmountable problem after another, all the while staying focused on his ultimate goal: saving his brother's life.

What works

OMG, Michael Scofield. Just as he does in the currently running DC's Legends of Tomorrow, Wentworth Miller steals every scene that he is in. There is something compelling about the character of Michael Scofield, a man who deliberately and courageously gives up everything -- his career, his home, his freedom, any sort of real future he might have -- for his brother.

And it's not just Michael's incredible sacrifice. Like Sawyer on Lost, Michael keeps getting hurt, and it is difficult to watch. Starting with the unacknowledged but obvious pain involved in such extreme tattooing in a relatively short period of time, Michael is tortured and loses two of his toes in the second episode. When Michael was seriously hurt so early, it succeeded in keeping me on the edge of my seat for the rest of the season, waiting for him to get hurt again (and he was). Michael also endures insulin shots and takes counteracting drugs to cover his masquerade as a type 1 diabetic. Michael's pain and despair are a constant throughout the first season. As far as emotional connection is concerned, for me, Prison Break is all about Michael Scofield.

That's not to dismiss Dominic Purcell's contribution to the series as Michael's brother. If we didn't believe Lincoln Burrows was worth saving, it would be difficult to invest in the show. The two feel like brothers, the connection is there. I totally believed it when Linc told Michael more than once, when the escape has become too difficult, that it was time to leave without him, which of course would mean Linc's imminent execution.

Michael's love interest, Dr. Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies), also works surprisingly well. I remember when the series first aired that I was actively shipping Michael and Sara, and never got enough scenes with them together. Although her struggle with addiction didn't ring completely true, what they did exactly right with Sara was that she is never a pushover for Michael, even after she has fallen for him. All the way to the end of the first season, Sara resists her attraction to Michael and is always aware that he is using her. Her resistance, right up to the point of changing the locks on her office door, made me like her more even while I found it incredibly frustrating for Michael's sake.

One big reason Prison Break was such a success is the outstanding supporting cast. Nearly every character on the show has shades of gray -- with a few exceptions. Michael, of course, is a straight up hero, even to a fault. Lincoln made serious and even criminal mistakes in his life, even though he is innocent of murder. Sara is a principled, compassionate physician, but also a recovering drug addict. (It was like they couldn't leave her perfect.)

T-Bag, Sucre, Michael, Linc, C-Note
Michael's cellmate Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) was guilty of his crime, but such a sweetie that I can't help loving him. I am also fond of C-Note (Rockmond Dunbar), a U.S. soldier railroaded by his superiors. Tweener (Lane Garrison) is a two-faced snitch, but he certainly didn't deserve the sexual abuse he had to endure. Westmoreland (Muse Watson) loves his cat Marilyn and longs to see his dying daughter, but he is also tough enough to hog tie Bellick and toss him into a drainpipe. Even mob boss Abruzzi (Peter Stormare), responsible for the loss of Michael's toes, T-Bag's hand and a rival's eye (the guy clearly has a thing about removing body parts) felt overwhelming guilt and a temptation to reform after causing the death of a small child.

And then there is T-Bag (Robert Knepper), murderer and pedophile, the slimiest, most evil, and possibly the most enjoyable-to-watch villain on television, the perfect example of a villain you love to hate. Apparently, Robert Knepper had seriously considered giving up acting right before he got the role. And now, I'm willing to bet that as an actor, he will never escape T-Bag's shadow.

Honorable mention for Brad Bellick (Wade Williams), the consistently despicable head prison guard, and Special Agent Kellerman (Paul Adelstein), who carries much of the evil Company plot going on outside Fox River, and who kills and manipulates with a jovial sort of amused smirk on his face.

What doesn't work

There are two major snafus in this first season: Veronica Donovan (Robin Tunney), Linc's attorney and former girlfriend, and Linc's son LJ (Marshall Allman).

As much as I like Robin Tunney, who rocked in The Craft and went on to star in The Mentalist, I nearly groaned out loud every time the action shifted to Veronica and her search for the truth about the conspiracy to frame Linc. During season one, we spend way too much time with Veronica and it is impossible to care, even when she is running for her life.

And unfortunately, LJ is an annoying, rebellious teen kid character in the long television tradition of annoying, rebellious teen kid characters. Again, it is difficult to care about LJ, even after he loses his mother and stepfather to the conspiracy; even when he is smart enough to elude Kellerman, his best scenes in the season. Note that the LJ plot, as dire as it is, simply disappears during the final episodes of season one. I'm sure that was no accident.

The whole bizarre plot with the brothers' long lost father, the vice president (Patricia Wettig) and her brother (John Billingsley), and the Company as the shadow U.S. government is too tin-foil-hat conspiracy theory, although I get why they worked so hard to establish why framing Linc was so important. The D.B. Cooper story is also a bit much, although it did set up the money as an important season two plot point.

One final thing that never worked for me is the kindly Warden (Stacy Keach) and his obsession with the Taj Mahal model made out of popsicle sticks. Okay, it isn't actually popsicle sticks, but you know what I mean.

What it comes down to is that the biggest flaw with season one is that it's 22 episodes long. While most of season one is taut and exciting, there are simply too many extraneous plot details. Imagine what the first season of Prison Break could have been if it had been thirteen episodes long, and on HBO.

Best episodes

"Riots, Drills and the Devil", Parts 1 and 2: In which there is a lockdown and riot, and a superlative damsel in distress plot. T-Bag learns about the escape plot and muscles himself in, and Linc weathers an assassination attempt. Interestingly, this two-parter features The Walking Dead's Michael Cudlitz in a key role as Bob, a prison guard taken hostage.

"Tweener": In which Sara visits Michael's psychiatrist and discovers that Michael is a creative genius with "low-latent inhibition" and no sense of self-worth, a combination that has apparently made him a compulsive rescuer. I'm not sure we needed to know all this, but it's sort of fascinating that the writers were trying to explain the extremes that Michael went to in this series. Love for his brother was apparently not enough.

"The Rat": Which features an outstanding performance by Dominic Purcell, as Linc comes within a micron of dying in the electric chair.

"Go" and "Flight": In which the season ends with a bang, featuring an escape that is as exciting and suspenseful as it could possibly be. Ten inmates are part of the escape plan, but Westmoreland dies after telling Michael where he hid his money; Sucre's cousin is unable to get over the wall; the hilarious Haywire is left behind on the road, but rallies by stealing a bicycle and a red football helmet and riding away; Michael abandons Tweener because he had snitched to Bellick; and after T-Bag handcuffs himself to Michael, Abruzzi detaches them -- with an axe.

That left Michael and Linc, Sucre and C-Note (our two leads, plus our two most likable and sympathetic supporting characters), and mob boss Abruzzi, standing in a field and wondering what they were going to do, since the escape plane took off without them. Sara is found unconscious in her apartment after taking an overdose, her complicity in the escape discovered.

To conclude

When I first started watching Prison Break ten years ago, the first season blew me away. It was fast-paced, action-packed, exciting and tense, and I absolutely couldn't wait to find out what happened next. At the time, I wrote an enthusiastic, glowing article about the first season. I still enjoyed it immensely during this rewatch, even though the tension was less because I knew what was coming.

Season one verdict: four out of four origami cranes,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.

6 comments:

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

Thank you, this made me get the first season. ^^

Billie Doux said...

The entire series is on Netflix, if you have it. And btw, the first season is incredible. Later seasons are another thing -- which I'll address when I post the reviews because we have that 'no spoilers for future episodes' policy.

Logan Cox said...

I think this was one of the first shows I binge-watched for days. Those first two seasons are monstrously engrossing. Even in the lesser seasons, they always kept the characters and the story's tension fresh.

Chicago Mike said...

I really loved the first season of Prison Break. I remember seeing the previews and wanted to check it out due to the storyline about Brothers. I have a younger Brother who I am close to and we have always helped each other out over the years. I also started around the same time watching Supernatural and kept on watching due to the good stories and of course that it involved Brothers helping each other.

Billie Doux said...

This is fun. Dominic Purcell refers to Wentworth Miller as his "brother from another mother".

mazephoenix said...

The first and second season were great. The rest..nah. But Robert Knepper was a standout and I always like seeing him on other shows as well as this one. Miller is so pretty in that picture. Sigh.