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Stephen King: Why I love 'Prison Break'

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Dominic Purcell, Wentworth Miller, ...
Jeremy Cowart/FOX

Here’s a truth that should be self-evident: There can be a big difference between what you think is great and what you actually like. When it comes to TV, the finest series currently on offer is — in your Uncle Stevie’s humble opinion — Breaking Bad (not AMC’s other series, Mad Men, which is just soap opera with a great retro feel). But when it comes to what I’d walk over my grandmother not to miss, the answer is Prison Break. Simple as that. I love Prison Break madly, deeply, truly.

Before you rush to catch up on everything you’ve missed, let me warn you: If you picked up the first three seasons on DVD and watched them all at once, your frakkin’ head would explode. I’ve scoped the entire run, and even I have only the dimmest idea of what’s going on. And that doesn’t detract from my pleasure even a little bit. Here’s a rough summary of Our Story So Far, concocted not with help from the usual Internet sources but from my own little Break-obsessed head. EW fact-checkers will try to fix this. I won’t let them.

So okay, there are these two brothers, Lincoln Burrows and Michael Scofield (I don’t remember why they don’t have the same last name). Linc gets convicted of murdering the Evil President’s brother, and is sentenced to death at Fox Mulder Memorial Prison (or maybe it’s Fox River; I know there’s a Fox in there somewhere because the show’s on Fox). Michael commits a robbery so he can also go to prison and bust his brother out. The escape plan is tattooed on Michael’s body. (It gets lasered off in season 4: the whole thing, all at once. Ouch!) Michael befriends the warden, who’s making a Taj Mahal out of Popsicle sticks, and falls in love with the prison nurse, Sara. In season 3, Sara gets her head chopped off, but it’s mistaken identity and she comes back in season 4.

With me so far?

Anyway, Michael and Linc escape with a bunch of assorted fruits and nuts. The most over-the-top is T-Bag, a degenerate Night of the Hunter-type psycho brilliantly played by Robert Knepper. There’s also this one guy who’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal and wants to live in a painting. Of Holland, I think. (He jumps off a water tower.)

NEXT PAGE: ”Here’s the part that kills me: All the survivors except Linc wind up in a Panamanian prison! Yes!

The second season is the best, a Sam Peckinpah shoot-out with the escapees looking for some money buried by — I think — mythic skyjacker D.B. Cooper. They are chased by a badass prison guard named Bellick and a pill-popping FBI lunatic named Alex Mahone. Mahone killed and buried a guy in his backyard, but that’s another story. (Oh, and T-Bag lost a hand and had a vet do a transplant, but it didn’t work; the hand now looks like something swiped from a department-store dummy.)

Here’s the part that kills me: All the survivors except Linc wind up in a Panamanian prison! Yes! It’s called Sona (Spanish for ”Fox Mulder”). This is the strike-shortened third season, and it’s gotta be the sweatiest 13 episodes of TV ever filmed. As an added taste treat, the swag-bellied Bellick (Wade Williams) stumbles through the first two in a pair of filthy undershorts. Not a yummy picture.

Needless to say, there’s another escape. T-Bag gets lost in the desert and is forced to chow down on his running buddy. When The Bag finally catches a ride, the driver sizes up his nausea and inquires, ”What’s wrong, man? Eat some bad Mexican?” Classy! Well, you know what they say: If you can’t eat the one you love, eat the one you’re with.

Turns out the president’s brother was murdered by a shadowy outfit called The Company, and now Linc, Michael, the resurrected Sara, and their cohorts must take the bad guys down, including dragon lady Susan B. Anthony (sometimes known as Gretchen — don’t ask).

What makes this so much damned fun are bright exteriors, crisp cutting, outrageous action sequences, and, most of all, the acting ensemble. I especially enjoy William Fichtner as Alex Mahone — Fichtner’s probably the best character actor on TV. These guys play it straight, so the audience does the same. There’s also a crazy existential subtext: No matter what these hapless escapees do or how fast they run, they always end up…booya!…back in prison.

For season 5, I hope it’s a gulag in Siberia.

More from Stephen King, and Prison Break-related galleries:
Stephen King: How TV ruined baseball

Stephen King: Why Hollywood can’t do horror

Tattoo U.! 22 inked characters

25 greatest escapes in movies/TV

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