To fully embrace Fox’s incredibly entertaining Prison Break, one must first forgive the ludicrous premise: Structural engineer Michael Scofield (The Human Stain‘s Wentworth Miller) robs a bank in order to land in the penitentiary where his brother, Lincoln (Dominic Purcell), is on death row. Lincoln says he’s innocent of murdering the brother of the U.S. vice president. Michael plans to bust him out; as fortune has it, he worked for the firm that designed the prison.
Let’s pause, laugh, and salute this series for being so well shot and acted that these little dragonflies of illogic buzz us only briefly. (But seriously, how lucky for Michael that he was sent to this particular prison — otherwise we’d be watching him in Leavenworth hitting his head and muttering ”Stupidstupidstupid!” for five years.) As it is, Prison Break has the dark social hierarchies of Oz and the clever inventions of Escape From Alcatraz. Michael’s plan involves blackmailing an incarcerated mobster (Peter Stormare); befriending a man believed to be the legendary D.B. Cooper (Muse Watson); and charming the do-good prison doctor (Sarah Wayne Callies), who happens to be the daughter of a tough Illinois governor. On the outside, Lincoln’s ex-girlfriend, lawyer Veronica (Robin Tunney), begins digging into who would want to frame Lincoln, and why. (Hint: The case screams ”government conspiracy.”)
That’s really only half of the crafty rat’s nest of plotlines introduced in the first two hours (starting at 8 p.m. on Aug. 29). Prison delights in these intricacies: The camera, for instance, swoops in and out of Michael’s full-torso tattoo, in which he’s embedded names, numbers, and an entire blueprint of the prison. The series’ writers dearly love that gothic swirl of ink on flesh: In one scene, Michael whittles away at a special screw he’s acquired to help him unbolt his toilet. When it looks the correct size, he presses its circumference against a dark circle tattoed on his arm to see if it matches. Rather than just putting it in the bolt he’s sitting next to. (Oh, the buzzing is back…) But such minor silliness is easily dismissed — especially in the wake of the previous, unsettling scene, set in Chicago’s Jaume Plensa-designed Crown Fountain, which is bookended by giant screens on which video faces flicker. As Tunney milks information from a nervous woman who fears she’s been targeted by government hitmen, the video faces ominously blink and stare in the background, Blade Runner-style.
So moody and unironic is Prison Break that one can even get spooked by clichés like the white supremacist (Robert Knepper) out to hurt Michael, armed with Rod Steiger’s In the Heat of the Night accent. The supporting cast is worthy of boasting: Tunney has the wit and wariness of a roughed-up bunny, Stacy Keach is suitably growly as the warden, and Amaury Nolasco (2 Fast 2 Furious) plays Michael’s cellmate with dashing sidekick appeal. But it’s Miller’s show. His Michael Scofield has the silky voice of a sociopath, the resigned stance of a long-distance runner, and the deadpan delivery of Macaulay Culkin at his Uncle Buck best. Who knew Prison could provide such a charming host?