The return of Prison Break is so exhaustingly mediocre, I barely have energy to make jokes about it. I had an idea of doing this April Fool’s thing of raving about Fox’s subversive strategy of deliberately producing another dead-inside reboot (also see: The X-Files and 24: Legacy) just for the purpose of weaning us off brandsploitation zombie pop. I would have found some way to compare Fox to the culture-shaping Hollywood propaganda machine depicted in the brilliant new Netflix documentary Five Came Back, about the filmmakers who framed and chronicled World War II for America, but I couldn’t make it work. Either I’m not clever enough, or something reasonable in me took hold and insisted that Prison Break isn’t worth the effort. I’m only telling you what could have been in order to name-drop and evangelize Five Came Back, which is very much worth your time.
Prison Break isn’t worth much of anything, but it could have been. You can see the better show trying to escape its lock-up of bad ideas. And by “better,” I don’t mean “important.” I mean a version of the show that honored Prison Break’s best form, sharply plotted, zestfully performed, over-the-top pulp escapism. I don’t need Prison Break to be Emmy-baiting prestige TV. But I do need it to be a hoot. Alas, the reboot hurts for hoots.
Not at first, though. The first hour of this nine-episode limited series does succeed at replicating some of the pleasures that made Prison Break a hit back in 2005, when cliffhanger serials were all the rage after the double-whammy phenoms of Lost and Desperate Housewives (not to mention 24, which was peaking creatively at the time). Written by series creator Paul Scheuring, the revival is set in the present, several years after ornately tatted escapologist, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), went to his grave, or seemed to. The first episode follows Michael’s beloved big bro, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), as he discovers through an old frenemy – Robert Knepper’s deliciously salty and ham-tastic T-Bag – that a dead-ringer for Michael is imprisoned in Yemen. How did he get there? What is he up to? Is Michael really Michael? All are questions that drive either some or all of the season.
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Lincoln does the requisite fact-checking – he quizzes Sara, Michael’s remarried widow (Sarah Wayne Callies); he digs up Michael’s grave – and he gathers some of the old gang for an implausible-but-okay-we’ll-roll-with-it rescue mission, tapping C-Note (Rockmond Dunbar) as his right-hand man and keeping Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) stateside as I’ll-call-you-when-I-need-you back-up. Scheuring and director Nelson McCormick make quick, slick work of re-establishing characters and ‘ships, and they amuse you with entertaining ridiculousness. There’s an exciting action sequence involving a remote control carjacking; there’s a mysterious subplot in which T-Bag gets a mechanical hand from a mysterious donor, and there’s a pair of cool assassins who effectively re-start the show’s mythological big bad, The Company. Michael’s maybe/maybe not identity theft is intriguing, and the actors take to their old parts with gusto. Purcell is a strong, muscular center, Miller grips you with his cool, calculated charisma, and Knepper has buffed his loquacious, decadent scuzzball to a gleaming shine.
But then the action shifts to an extravagantly generic facsimile of war-torn Yemen, where the government is fighting a losing battle with ISIL. It’s all bazaars and squalid inner cities, byzantine passageways and road-blocked streets, shot through a burnt-sand filter. Here, Prison Break spirals into a depressing quagmire of Muslim stereotypes and over-simplified geopolitics. In this regard, Fox really is peddling propaganda. Does the network’s playbook for reboots dictate that stores must play to the Fox News worldview and depict Muslims as terrorists and inhuman monsters? (A terrible episode of The X-Files revival trafficked in such stuff, too.) One tries to string up the homosexuals in the prison. Another tries to rape and murder a new character, Sheba (Inbar Lavi), an ally to Lincoln. Scheuring attempts some balance — C-Note, for example, heads up the show’s Good Muslim representation – but the black-or-white portrayals are insulting, and the whole business is just exasperating.
The prison itself is a dull, unimaginative setting that doesn’t offer much in terms of facilitating a conceptually interesting escape plot full of fresh ideas or interesting complications. This, in turn, diminishes Michael, whose ingeniousness is limited to faking a fever, crafting some crypto-origami, and trading drugs for cell phone time. The franchise’s most colorful idea – that Michael’s blue tattooed body is inked with clues and data that help him in work – is weirdly underutilized. Ultimately, the break-out, covered in episodes 3 and 4, hinges on a variety of cliches, including a literal prison break. The storytelling does get the pulse racing, though, with the ever-encroaching war outside the prison ratcheting up the tension and some quality action scenes.
The first 4 episodes are watchable enough thanks to the cast, and it’s possible Prison Break could finish strong. The show’s midseason climax is the Michael-Lincoln reunion, which means that it makes you wait, and wait, and wait, for one of its best energies to be activated, the Miller-Purcell chemistry. The story seems to be about getting the brothers and some of their crew back to the United States and joining the more interesting conspiracy plot that’s unfolding there involving Sara, T-Bag and those aforementioned assassins, plus a few surprises best left unspoiled. There are emotional and mysterious aspects of Michael’s identity crisis that could make for strong characters drama and more twists in the latter half of the season. Yet I can’t imagine anyone except the most die-hard of Prison Break fans sticking around to find out. There’s just too much good TV out there that’s more deserving of your attention. Why waste it on a creatively dim enterprise of middling pleasures and demeaning effect? Sorry, fans, but Prison Break should have stayed locked up. C-
Prison Break returns Tuesday, April 4 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.