Until about two weeks ago, I had never pushed beyond the series premiere of Prison Break. This wasn’t because there was too much good stuff on elsewhere in the late aughts to really commit to Fox’s fraternal action-melodrama, though. The reason was because the first episode made me feel as if I had entered, trained for, and run the New York City Marathon in one day and celebrated after with a bucket of Nyquil. Other than the basic premise — gifted architect brother, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) gets sent to the jail he designed in order to break out his wrongly-convicted brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) — the show did not offer much to elicit my attention beyond a perverse curiosity as to just how much testosterone the show would pack into each episode.
Mind you, this is a series in which a well-trained, brilliant female doctor (Sarah Wayne Calles) sets fire to her career and risks a lengthy prison sentence for the possible love of a vaguely attractive, condescending prisoner and his brother. If one wishes to see this as “love conquers all,” that’s all well and good, but for all the talk of the importance of family, there’s little over the last four seasons — or the four episodes of Season 5 that were made available to critics — that seems to give insight into what keeps Scofield, Burrows, and Calles’ Sara bonded as a family. In fact, it’s pretty clear that no one in the writers room of this show was ever genuinely interested in the details and real work that goes into maintaining a family unit. Rather, “family” and its assumed facet of loyalty are seen as the obvious, necessary other against the thorough evil and betrayal-heavy doctrines of the government. And for all the dependence that all these characters seem to have on one another, the only things we truly know about a character like Sara, beyond some largely irrelevant backstory, is how she feels about Scofield and Burrows. We don’t know her, or many of the regular figures in the series, as characters outside of their relation to these brothers.
One might hope that this “event series” would rectify these seriously debilitating issues but if anything, the latest episodes of Prison Break move further toward total self-serious male fantasia than the initial seasons. It’s now Burrows who is put in charge of getting a resurrected Scofield out of Yemen’s Ogygia prison, though Scofield already seems to be locked into his own ideas for escape. To the credit of the series’ writers, the plot gets going almost immediately, and as engineered, each episode does keep up a pretty high level of action. Within the first 20 minutes of the season premiere, a car is hacked and driven off the road and a professional assassination attempt is made on one of the main characters. Those who are here for adrenaline, and maybe just a little nostalgia for a series that ended less than a decade ago, will likely find exactly what they’re looking for in these eight episodes. Those who are looking for good television, however, will likely not be pleased by what’s going on here.
Part of the issue here is that Purcell and Miller are not particularly good in a series that depends on a certain level of realism. As tandem villains in CW’s The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, they are far more involving because those shows are steeped in theatricality, pulp, and even a bit of camp. In Prison Break, where corporate law, religion, terrorism, and the American family are all major thematic subjects, they are no more or less compelling than a pair of Bruce Willis clones, specifically the Live Free or Die Hard era. In comparison to their antics, the drama of Sara’s new husband (Mark Feuerstein) finding out about a resurrected Scofield and the return of Kellerman (Paul Adelstein) feel constructed simply to kill time and overcomplicate a tedious plot. Indeed, the primary reason that this show likely avoids serious contemplation of its societal and political world is that such complications would interfere with the more immediate gratifications of having the chaotic world kept at peace by two white, bald, forty-something American brothers who keep their shit tight.
And yet, had this all hued closer to the tone of something far more comical and openly appealing to base instincts — Strike Back, Burn Notice, and Into the Badlands come to mind — there would be less reason to really complain about all of this. As the series goes onto see the brothers reunited in Yemen, after reappearances by Rockmond Dunbar‘s C-Note and Robert Knepper‘s riotous Bagwell, the entire tone tips more toward A-Team or Dirty Dozen territory, and yet the show continues to overstate the importance and stakes of their actions. Knepper has a talent for cutting through the self-important, grim-as-fuck tone of the series, as well as imagery that is cut and composed exclusively to expedite the plot, but the other performances blend into this risible fiction in the same way that 24: Legacy does. Neither show seems capable of giving a nod toward self-awareness, some sense that they are working exclusively in the fictional realm.
One might imagine that Prison Break, now an international ordeal, would aspire to the same sort of technical language, know-how, and relevant detail that colors popular international melodramas like Homeland or The Americans. The sense of layered, unpredictable character that marks both of those shows is at distinct odds with the blunt force that Prison Break offers. The only things we know for sure about Scofield and Burrows is that they get shit done for each other and that seems to be the only thing that really matters here…still. There’s no nuance to their thinking, no unexpected wrench in the gears that they won’t eventually be able to out-maneuver, and this weighs down an already laughably heavy-handed narrative. There’s an undeniable audience for this sort of flagrant posturing, and for all I know, this trip abroad will satisfy a dedicated fanbase that is genuinely excited to see Scofield and Burrows back. My hope is that this will satisfy whatever itch the show’s die-hards had to elicit this revival, if only to finally put an end to all of this.
Rating: ★ – No Thank You
Prison Break Season 5 starts airing at 10 p.m. EST on Tuesday nights, starting April 4th.