In Praise of 'Prison Break' and Dumb TV

Eight years after its finale, 'Prison Break' returns for a limited series that is as unnecessary as it is fun.

by Pilot Viruet
Apr 4 2017, 9:00pm

Wentworth Miller (FOX)

The 2009 finale of Prison Break—marketed as a television movie subtitled "The Final Break"—ended with protagonist and prison breaker Michael Scofield's (Wentworth Miller) death. In a video pre-recorded for his loved ones, Michael stares at the camera and ends the series by announcing, "We're free now. Finally. We're free." In 2017's fifth season premiere, the narration begins "Freedom has a price," as Scofield explains that he "died seven years ago" but doesn't explain why he's now alive. That is Prison Break in a nutshell: It's ridiculous, it makes no sense, but it's watchable because you need to find out answers.

While other television revivals make sense—Gilmore Girls, Full(er) House, The X-Files—the return of Prison Break seems like the punchline to a joke about peak TV. Even when Prison Break first premiered on FOX back in 2005, it seemed like a baffling series—how do you sustain a story about a guy breaking out of prison? What happens when he does break out of prison? The answer, it seemed, was to just keep ramping up the wild insanity, which is the same strategy this limited series is employing and with even stranger results.

It's hard to top the strangeness of where Prison Break ended up. The first season (particularly the first 13 episodes) made for fascinating television, with a compelling, edge-of-your-seat escape plot alongside a love story between Michael and his prison doctor as well as a surprisingly emotional relationship between the show's two brothers. But once they broke out, it got a little weird. 

After a season on the run, Michael ended up in a Panamanian prison—one ruled by inmates, not guards—but he broke out of that, too, only to spend another season collecting cards to break into a facility with ties to a conspiracy. (Honestly, no one really knew what season four was about.) It was eventually clear that there's no rhyme or reason to Prison Break: in season three, Dr. Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Collies) was decapitated and her head is put into a box—but in season four, she was alive (head and all!) with basically a shrug from the writers. In "The Final Break," Michael breaks into a prison in order to break his wife out of the prison, but he dies in the process. The best way I can think of to describe Prison Break: The Final Break is that a lone DVD copy sat in the bargain bin at my local Rite Aid, untouched, for over a year.

This all said: I've watched all of Prison Break, numerous times, and enjoyed every second of it, but even I had a hard time sitting through the first four episodes of this revival. Even outside of the absurd timing—why did we need Prison Break 2.0 now?—there is very little that makes sense, though I suppose that's keeping with the general feel of the series. Michael is alive, though we don't get immediate details on how he survived, or what exactly he's been doing. All we know is that he's in prison, again, presumably because he needed something to break out of. 

Some of the old gang is reunited, including his brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell), who's still a small-town crook; Sara, now remarried and raising Michael's son; creepy T-Bag (Robert Knepper) who sets everything in motion; C-Note (Rockmond Dunbar), now a peaceful Muslim whose main job is to hang around and help everyone else feel comfortable in Yemen because, for some reason, this show now takes place in Yemen.

But Prison Break isn't concerned with "reasons" or "logic" or "the fact that death isn't reversible." The willingness to just say "fuck it" and go with what writers think is purely entertaining or adrenaline-fueled has always been part of its charm. Putting aside the two most egregious problems with season five—the overly convoluted conspiracy plot is more frustrating than entertaining, and much worse, the setting allows the series to occasionally dip into lazy and offensive Middle Eastern stereotypes—Prison Break is still, well, Prison Break. The performances—particularly Wentworth Miller and Robert Knepper—are worth sticking around for, as is the basic prison-break plot. See, there is but one guarantee in Prison Break: Because Michael's brain works as a Rube Goldberg machine for breaking out of prisons, he will certainly break out of this one before the season's end.

It's why it's so unfortunate that all the fun of the escape gets bogged down in all the heavier, less interesting plots. As expected, there's a confusing conspiracy theory throughout in season five, but it's hard to pay enough attention to actually try and parse what the conspiracy is about—if it's about anything at all. What works better are all the nonsensical aspects that become more and more laughable as the season progresses: a robotic prosthetic hand, terrorism, brainwashing, game theory, ISIS, frustratingly cryptic notes folded up into paper cranes, a seemingly endless parade of bombs, and a piece of gum that will "start a sequence of events that will finish on the other side of the world."

Based on the first four (of nine) episodes, Prison Break hasn't given us a compelling case for its return, but it has taught us one key to watching ridiculous television: Never take the show as seriously as it takes itself.

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Prison Break
Wentworth Miller