Did we like it?
Having had our once-resolute defence of scorn towards over-stylised, ludicrous US dramas torn to shreds by a guilty addiction to Lost, we found this rather enjoyable even if it too has a mumbling, mixed-up hero with a shaved head and tedious tattoos. We’re happy to be sentenced to the full 22-week run of this US prison drama – another great import from Five. Bang us up, please.
What was good about it?
• While the ingredients of the plot itself aren’t original – a brutal prison from Oz; tattoos used as a plot device – Memento; a government conspiracy framing someone for a murder of a VIP – X-Files, 24 – the whole thing was carried off with enough wit and razor-sharp characterisation to ensure your swept along and don’t dwell on the shoddy flaws.
• Wentworth Miller as Michael Scofield – he looks like an amalgam of several Chelsea footballers and performs with a steely, ingenious determination. He’s a successful structural engineer who gets himself banged up in Fox River State Penitentiary so that he can free his brother Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), who is on Death Row awaiting execution for killing the US vice-president’s brother.
• Captain Bellick’s welcome to the jail: “The Ten Commandments don’t mean a box of piss in here. We got two commandments and two only: The first commandment is you got nothing coming.” And the second? “See commandment number one.”
• Stacy Keach as prison boss Warden Henry Pope who needs Michael’s expertise on load bearing to complete his matchstick replica of the Taj Mahal (a nice wacky touch)
• The cartoonish conspiracy in which the two shifty Secret Servicemen are so desperate to have Lincoln executed that they bump off a merciful priest who holds sway with the state governor
• The sombre tone just makes it even more amusing
What was bad about it?
• Michael’s relationship with the beautiful prison doctor seems to be a gratuitous attempt to give the series some love interest. Why couldn’t he have just had a relationship with cellmate Fernando instead? So what if the cellmate looks like Hear’Say’s Danny Foster. Needs must sometimes.
• The characters seem to have been shipped in from that perfect nirvana known as Hollywood. Lawyer Veronica Donavan can’t be older than 30, yet is already handling contentious armed robberies, Michael himself, also around 30, is in charge of huge construction projects like rebuilding prisons, and Dr Sara Tancredi can’t be much over 25 and yet is a fully-qualified doctor in control of a prison (admittedly her father is the governor, so it may be nepotism at work). It’s not that people of such tender years are incapable of such feats, it’s more that they also happen to be beautiful too, as if debarring the less prepossessing amongst us to a life of servitude in the lower echelons of employment because our cheekbones aren’t situated at a high enough altitude to provide a tough climb for mountaineers.
• And what’s more, they are also genii in the same way that when Hollywood lazily wants to communicate the wondrous intellect of a protagonist they’ll ascribe them as lawyers, because Michael was “top of the class” at a prestigious university, while his nephew LJ was “getting all As last semester”.
• The yawning chasms in the plot that includes Michael somehow getting incarcerated for his armed robbery in the same maximum security jail as his brother. And that he just happened to also have been instrumental in its refurbishment a few years before and so he therefore knows the lay-out of its bowels (and has had them tattooed on his torso to remind him).
• As a prison drama it quails in the shadow of the mighty Oz. Such a sanitised view of prison life – the odd stabbing, a punch up in the yard – is far too tame to have the visceral lurid appeal of Oz where paedophiles were crucified on the gymnasium floor, where prison guards had their eyes gouged out, where green Mafiosi were buggered to insanity over the stove and, most memorably, where a deranged drink-driving accountant did a shit into the mouth of a Nazi.