Sunday, September 04, 2005

TV Review: Prison Break Tease

Ever run a program on your computer to check for viruses? You really don't want to find anything but when two minutes turns into ten, turns into twenty, you start feeling like something, anything, has to happen to make the time you're expending worthwhile.

That's what Fox's new Monday night show Prison Break which stars Wentworth Miller as Michael, was like. A lot of exposition, a lot of chatter, a lot of "back when"s, but not a lot of forward momentum.

Let's get our exposition out of the way. These are the Prison Break basics: Michael's an engineer. His brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) is on death row and due to be executed shortly. Being a good brother, Michael doesn't want that to happen. Being a character in the high concept land of Fox TV, Michael decides the only way to save his brother is to get in the prison and break him out.

Now some might get in via a weekend visit or possibly apply for a job as a prison guard. Those thoughts don't appear to have crossed Michael's mind. Instead he does the "logical only on Fox TV" thing of attempting to hold up a bank at gun point to gain entry to the prison. Well if the mountain won't come to Muhammed . . .

A lot things don' t make sense in this show (which broadcast two episodes last Monday). For instance, we were perplexed by all the comments onscreen about Wentworth Miller's good looks which, honestly, aren't all that. Besides the bald spot beginning at the back of his head, Miller also sports a bit of a belly. (We're being generous.) You'll note that belly in his one and only shirtless scene. (Better posture would eliminate much of the belly but Miller's one of those tall men who's gone through life slouching.) Sporting a Sinead O'Connor haircut circa 1991 also does him no favors and only highlights the bald spot.

As characters rush to weigh in on (and shore up) his looks, you may not immediately notice that he's not acting. He's posing. And mistaking a pout for a sneer as he delivers every line in the same self-amused manner. (Even when being slammed around.)

Maybe we missed the memo declaring pursed lips the new Method?

Armed with a pout and delivering every line in some sort of tribute to Cher's variety hour work,
while the big talk inside the prison is Michael's looks, we kept expecting Miller to hop ontop of an upright piano and break into a few verses of "I Saw A Man And He Danced With His Wife."

A friend swears that Miller's playing Michael as a "power bottom" and the character is just waiting for the "right man to call his bluff." We'd argue that our friend put way too much thought into the series -- far more, in fact, than the writers have.

As we continued to wait for the show to pick up the pace, somewhere into hour two, we realized it was chugging along and circling back in slow-mo. Repeatedly. Nothing changes if . . . nothing changes.

In two hours, Michael went to prison, offered romantic advice to his cell mate, began a flirtation with the female doctor at the prison, had a jealous man die in his arms and was hit on by the jealous man's partner.

You'll notice, if you pay attention, how uncomfortable same-sex relationships make the people behind this show. The entire first hour goes by without any allusion to same-sex sex. Haven't they seen Oz?

Almost three decades ago, in Charlie's Angels' infamous "Angels in Chains" episode, a female guard slammed Sabrina (Kate Jackson) down on a bed and leered, "I'm going to be watching you, sweetcakes, watching you real hard." Nothing in Prison Break approaches that level. The scene that finally addresses the elephant in the prison yard plays out as though it were a "Pax Time" broadcast.

The show treats same-sex relations as something that only happens on a rainy day when there's nothing else to do. And seems determined to reassure viewers that the show wouldn't, in the words of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, decide "to go gay all the sudden!"

That explains why less than three minutes after the elephant that dares speak its name scene, we're suddenly in bed with Lincolon and Veronica (Robin Tunney). It's a flashback that pops up only to reassue viewers who get the willies over same-sex topics.

Veronica's not only Lincoln's ex-girlfriend, she's also Michael's lawyer. And her life is in danger beginning in the second hour. Why? She might find out what's really going on.

This need to punish anyone attempting to figure out the plot happens onscreen and off as writers mistake obscurity for suspense. Let's trot out Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was always fond of stating that you could show two people seated at a table and surprise the audience by having a bomb go off. But if you wanted to build suspense, you let the audience in on the fact that there was a bomb under the table while the scene played. This is a concept the writers of Prison Break fail to grasp.

We're trying not to provide any "spoilers" here but what exactly is the point of hiding the face of the woman who tells the two cronies (we could explain all this, but again no spoilers) that Veronica, that anyone, is expendable?

Let's quote the mystery woman:

You can handle a girl who graduated in the middle of her Baylor law school class. At least I'd like to think so given the stakes of what we're dealing with here. Anyone that's a threat to what we're doing is expendable. Anyone. Do what you need to do to make this go away.

The mystery woman is an example of all that is wrong with Prison Break. For starters, if you didn't immediately recognize Patricia Wettig's voice (thirtysomething, Alias, etc.), you're not watching enough TV. (Words we never thought we'd say.) Besides concealing her face onscreen, there's also an effort to keep her name out of the publicity materials for the show. Wettig being in the cast isn't a matter of national security, but the show's treating it as such. (Reminds us of J-Ass retroactively classifying Sibel Edmonds testimony.) As though mentioning her name will give the "big secret" away.

The "big secret" (as portrayed onscreen -- we're not doing spoilers) is that Lincoln's on death row after being convicted of murdering the brother of the vice-president. In the second hour (which is actually the second episode), you finally learn that Lincoln didn't kill the man. (The sort of detail that The Fugitive addressed in the first minutes of the very first episode.) Lincoln did enter the parking garage with a gun, Lincoln did intend to kill the man (to pay off a debt), but when he got to the car, the man had already been killed.

Lincoln was set up! (Seems rather lame if you spend too much time thinking about it. Lincoln was prepared to kill the man. But those involved in pulling off the "big secret" apparently had as little faith in Lincoln as the writers of this show have in the audience.) Which leaves Lincoln to sing the sad sack song of "I'm On Death Row For Killing A Man Someone Else Rubbed Out Before I Got There." In the amoral world of Fox TV, this passes for complexity. (In the real world, it's no get-out-of-prison-free card but leads to charges of participating in a criminal conspiracy.)

Again, that emerges in the second hour. So much more is still kept hidden that we're picturing desperate viewers demanding Congressional hearings to get to the bottom of the plot.

Will people watch? We did. We were actually excited by the show's debut . . . until we watched.
As the summer progressed and our review choices continued to dwindle, we were wondering if our next stop would be the game shows of daytime TV? We can picture viewers, longing for new programming, willing to spend a few hours with this show but we can't imagine many hanging around once the fall season is officially underway if the show doesn't become a little more forthcoming. (We're told that "Cute Poison," episode four airing Monday after next, really "gets things moving.")

What we're dealing with is a show that confuses the viewers intentionally by not, to put it bluntly, putting out. It's all tease thus far and forgive us for not wanting to shove dollar bills into Wentworth Miller's g-string. Purcell has a bit of a cult following but watching the show you may be confused as to why. That's because this is one of the worst visual looks a show has had in years: badly lit, flatly photographed, and a wardrobe department that doesn't grasp the basics. (Clue: Robin Tunney has no waist. Her rib cage is too low and her hips are too high. As with Judy Garland or Tom Cruise, the illusion of a waist must be created.)

Though we're having a hard time seeing the attraction to Miller (you really need a British accent to convincingly pull off crying out, "Oh Wentworth! Oooooh, Wentworth!"), we'll also add that if you're one of the niche audience members whom Miller appeals to, don't get your hopes up over the prospects of non-stop shirtless scenes. Miller's Michael has smuggled in the building plans of the prison via tattoos on his arms and upper torso (front and back). The "tattoos" take over four hours (and two people) to apply. (Partial versions can be done in less time.)

Maybe the show will improve in later episodes? Maybe the writers will stop playing I've Got a Secret? If so, it better happen soon, otherwise, when new programming is offered on all the networks, the headlines may read, "Viewers Make a Break from Prison Break!"
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