Good Lord, this show is terrible.
The plots are predictable, the dialogue is laughable, and there isn’t a three-dimensional character in sight. I have never before seen a show so horribly, utterly, unforgivably fail the Bechdel Test (seriously, look at that cast picture: they were so desperate for a female face they had to include characters who are secondary to tertiary characters). I haven’t felt this embarrassed about getting hooked on a television show since Smallville, and that one at least had James Marsters intermittently drop by (someday I’ll tell you about my Grand Theory of Really Good Actors Who Consistently Show Up In Substandard Fare and All of a Sudden Make Everything Better).
Because the really embarrassing thing is that I am, in fact, hooked on this damn show. Maybe it’s because I have a paper to write and I’d rather, at this point, subject myself to a Twilight marathon over dealing with said paper, but I do think that there is something deliciously addictive about this piece of crap. I’d like to think it’s because it hits so many of my sweet spots. Maybe it’s because I’m an unapologetic sucker for a brilliant protagonist who’s always three steps ahead of everyone else (see also: my Doctor Who obsession). Maybe it’s because I love a story about a good person who’s forced into doing not-so-good things. Maybe it’s because I can’t resist a good caper, or maybe it’s because Wentworth Miller is a pretty, pretty man.
Because this show is like Cheese-Its. You know they’re bad for you, you know they taste vaguely like cardboard and are probably turning your intestines a glowing shade of orange, you hate yourself every second you eat them, and then you turn around and the box is gone. It’s not a good show, but it’s an engrossing one.
Well – okay, that’s not entirely true. I love the parts of this show that take place in the prison. Everything else is when I go and work on this paper. The lawyer lady whose name I can’t be bothered to look up right now and her Abercrombie and Fitch sidekick need to go hide in the Cave of Pointless Characters, and Terry Schuester and her whiny brat son can join them. There seems to be a revolving door of slimy white men in suits, and I can’t really tell them apart or really tell anything about them other than that they’re not nice people. I also get the impression that there’s supposed to be some sort of conspiracy I need to care about, but I think I have that all figured out, so either it’s really really dumb and telegraphed, or too complicated to actually have an impact.
But that does speak to what I think is one of the greatest issues with this show – it’s built on a foundation of disconnect. There’s the “let’s escape from jail” plot, and it’s entirely separate from the “there’s a conspiracy and we have to exonerate this innocent man” plot. Indeed, if either succeeds, the other becomes irrelevant – if Lincoln is found innocent, there’s no reason to break him out, and if they break him out, he’s a fugitive, and it doesn’t matter whether or not he’s innocent. Since, going by the title of the show, we can tell which plot the creators are more interested in, it’s really hard to care about everything going on outside the prison.
This is especially since what’s going on inside the prison is actually pretty compelling. Look, everyone in this show is either a good guy or a bad guy – it’s just the way it’s made, and, as much as I might wish for some more complexity, this show is simply incapable of holding multiple moral perspectives in a character simultaneously. But, even with this dichotomy, the characters in the jail are frequently forced to do things which don’t fit within their moral paradigm, and so their actions are gray even when their characters are not, which is much more interesting than our white knights and evil bastards on the outside.
And I will say that this show knows how to build drama off of characters and their relationships. Lincoln’s son might be an obnoxious little twerp, but the show does work both of these characters’ arcs off of their dynamic of betrayal and regret. Michael and Lincoln’s relationship is depicted quite well through minimal dialogue and backstory, and, even though I called it the minute Michael entered the doctor’s office, I’m loving the adorable courtship between him and Sara. It’s a great way of showing the audience what Michael would have been like before he got into this mess without awkwardly shoehorning in flashbacks, and those two have wonderful chemistry.
The problem is, this show is much more focused on plot than on relationships. It’s a structural thing – again, I point you to the title. We watch this show to see a guy with blueprints tattooed on his chest break out of prison, and the relationships are secondary to moving that plot along. This is a problem because, as I said before, half of the plot of this show is deathly dull. Oh no, who took lawyer lady’s videotape? (More importantly, why do people in this show still use videotapes?)
That’s why I think that the last episode I watched (well, two episodes) was probably the best the show’s done so far. It was the two-part “Riots, Drills, and the Devil,” and I think what was so successful about it was that it managed to get all of the plots in the same place. Yes, lawyer lady and her trusty sidekick were off doing their own thing for the second half, but I’m willing to overlook that as I overlook pretty much everything else they do. Otherwise, you know what they say, kids, riots bring everyone together (I’m well aware that that’s not actually what they say.) It felt almost like a bottle episode, in that it gave everyone one thing to worry about and allowed all of the disparate plots to intersect – the escape, the romance, the alliances, creepy sex dude (seriously, I need to learn these people’s names), the tenuous balance of power within the prison. It allowed Lincoln to get out of his cell and do something for once, and it even got the inclusion of his wife and son to sort of make sense. Most of all, around all that, it allowed the show to do what it does best – tell a tense, high-stakes, tightly constructed story.
That is not to say that anything that happens in this show is in any way even slightly acquainted with realism. I was going to try to make some point about its commentary on the inhumanity of the American prison system – but no, seriously, you even look at anything in this show the wrong way and the whole apparatus tumbles down. Despite that, it’s ridiculously entertaining television. I would hope, obviously, that it continues in the direction suggested by the last two episodes, but even if I have to keep muttering about what a dumb piece of crap it is at every commercial break, I’m still going to keep watching. When I call it dumb, I mean that in the very best sense of the word. It’s idiotic, but it knows that, and that allows it to be ridiculously, deliciously, gleefully mindless fun.
Maybe it’s because this show is predictable, or maybe I’ve just been way too spoiled, but it’s not like we don’t know what’s going to happen in the end. We know that Michael is going to break Lincoln out of prison, because that’s just the kind of show this is (again, see the title). We know that every minor setback is just that – a minor setback. So there’s no real sense of stakes (I was shocked when they cut off Wentworth Miller’s toes, but not at all shocked when they forgot all about that a few episodes later), because it’s pretty clear that everything’s going to work out in the end. But if it had stakes, it wouldn’t work nearly so well, because that whole fragile apparatus thing I was just talking about would rear its ugly head and make the whole thing disfunctional. The fun of Prison Break is in seeing how that happens, in hanging out with these characters as they figure out what’s going on, in watching Michael’s thinking face. It’s in pretending that something bad might happen, but knowing that the only person who’s in danger is some unfortunate extra. (At least, that’s my impression seven episodes in – wouldn’t it be hysterical if, right after this, I’m proven completely wrong?) But for now, I repeat, this is a terrible, terrible show, and it’s one I’m going to watch to the end.