Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Grand Puzzle

The Fox Network kicked off the 2005-06 Television season on Monday night with the two hour debut of their new series Prison Break. I have to say that it was a pretty good way to mark the end of four months of mostly bad television.

With a title like Prison Break and all of the publicity that the series has been receiving during the summer, you might be excused for thinking that you know what the series is about. It seems obvious that the hero, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) has a plan to get his brother Lincoln Burroughs (Dominic Purcell, probably best known from the series John Doe) out of prison for a crime he didn't commit. As is usually the case with these things it's not necessarily what will happen that captures our interest, it's how the circumstances will be set up for the apparent dramatic climax - in this case the actual prison break - and the whole question of why Lincoln was set up for the murder of the Vice President's brother. The elements are revealed bit by bit over time in a way which leaves the audience not entirely sure what's going on but waiting to see what comes next. In a way the show is like a complex jigsaw puzzle with elements revealed here and there but never fully becoming comprehensible until seen in context. Even when some of the adjacent pieces come together to provide part of the picture that part may or may not be what it seems.

The first episode of the two shown on Monday night was the pilot episode. It opened with Michael getting the finishing touches put on a set of tattoos which truly impress the artist doing them. Since we know that Michael is going to prison the natural assumption is that he is getting the tattoos in order to establish a certain amount of credibility within the prison population. After the scene at the tattoo parlor Michael returns to a luxurious apartment where seemingly in rage he tears down a collection of clippings and plans and maps. Not all of the clippings seem relevant. Besides reports of the trial of the man who shot the Vice President's brother, there are clippings about a mafia boss who has been sent to prison, the daughter of the governor of the state, reports on Insulin, and D.B. Cooper, the man who jumped out of a plane with over a million dollars and disappeared. Everything in this opening sequence seems disconnected but by the end of the episode the pieces all start coming together. Everything that seems unconnected has a place in the grand scheme of things.

The situation outside of the prison is as much of a puzzle but one which is less clear but in its own way more dangerous than the situation within the prison. We quickly learn that there really is a plot for which Lincoln's execution is a key element and in which the U.S. Secret Service - or at least an element within the Secret Service - is involved right up to their eyeballs. It's not just serious it's deadly, to the point where a Catholic Archbishop, who apparently is interested in preventing the execution and who has some influence with the state Governor, is murdered to make sure the execution goes ahead without a hitch. Robin Tunney plays Veronica Cartwright, a young lawyer who tried to defend Michael for the bank robbery which he staged to get sent to prison. She's known Michael and Lincoln since they were all kids and, as it turns out, had an affair with Lincoln which didn't turn out well. Michael persuades her to look into Lincoln's case on the outside, with the murder of the Archbishop apparently being the convincing factor. As she digs deeper into the issue she both discovers at least the possibility that Lincoln has been framed, but she herself is discovered, coming to the attention of the corrupt Secret Service agents and their mysterious boss.

Prison Break isn't perfect. The show seems to be driven by a maddening series of assumptions and coincidences. Michael is almost immediately connected as soon as he goes into prison. Within three days he has close contact with all of the key players that he needs in order to accomplish his plot, including his brother Lincoln. It seems as if it couldn't possibly be a coincidence that the prison warden - played with his usual strength by Stacy Keach - is building a wooden model of the Taj Mahal as a surprise present for his wife and yet how could Michael possibly know about it or that the model is structurally flawed. But Michael needs to have the prison warden as a protector so that he doesn't have to face the sort of problems a normal inmate would encounter, like being thrown into solitary confinement like Michael's cellmate Sucre. We are also required to accept that while the Secret Service is able to find out about Veronica's relationship with Lincoln with incredible ease but that no one has any awareness that Michael Scofield and Lincoln Burroughs are brothers despite the fact that Lincoln's son L.J. shows up at Michael's sentencing. Certainly the warden has no difficulty finding out that Michael is a structural engineer. Even the fact that Lincoln is due to be executed while the Vice President is still Vice President - since we all know how long prisoners on Death Row stay on Death Row given the length of the appeals process - is difficult to accept as anything but a bit of deus ex machina.

None of the absurd plot points matter. It's like looking at a painting where some things have been exaggerated and conventions either altered or ignored but which, when viewed as a complete entity, holds together in a manner that wouldn't be possible if everything had been assembled in a realistic manner. Of course Michael gets sent to the same prison that his brother is in and of course no one knows that they're related (unless Michael tells them) despite knowing the same people. The character motivations and decision making might be questionable (to say the least) but they work with their own internal logic. Questioning the flaws doesn't detract from the puzzle anymore than questioning events in most thrillers makes them break down. It's essential to the way the whole picture comes together. Series creator Paul Scheuring has done an excellent job of building a suspenseful story which in the first two episodes at least holds together extremely well and we're along for the ride. At the moment the only question left is this: what do you do for an encore, or in TV terms Season 2?

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