Sunday, December 25, 2011

Get A Run On: Prison Break - Season 1 On DVD Illustrates The Strengths/Weakness Of The Medium.

The Good: Appropriately dense for an adult serialized drama, Decent enough acting and character development, DVD features
The Bad: Light on character, Some predictability, Television conceits
The Basics: When Michael Scofield gets incarcerated to break his brother out of the same prison, viewers get a pretty exciting season on DVD with Prison Break Season 1.

Someday, someone is going to make a television series for DVD only. That is to say, at some point, someone will create a series that sees its first run on DVD and it will be designed to be sat and watched as one twenty-two act play. I always thought it would have been cool, for example, if Carnivale (reviewed here!) had continued its series beyond what was aired on DVD. The sets were expensive enough and there was an audience for the show. Alas, it did not happen.

One of the two series' that seems perfectly designed for DVD, though, is Prison Break. The other is Veronica Mars (reviewed here!) and what both shows have going for them that makes them ideal on DVD is a strong, serialized storyline that is clearly going somewhere. In the case of Veronica Mars, each season has an entire season mystery that Veronica pieces together using clues from each episode's individual case. With Prison Break, there is a single, unrelenting storyline - or two that interweave - that the show is clearly building with. And the title says it all for season one: this is the story of a man breaking out of prison. Of course, it is more than that and what surprised me was generally how smart the season was.

Michael Scofield buys himself a pretty massive tattoo that covers his front and back. Shortly thereafter, he walks into a bank during lunchtime where he stages a rather unsuccessful holdup. When the police descend upon him, he surrenders his two firearms, pleads "no contest" and is sentenced to eight years at Fox River Penitentiary. There, he does his best to lie low while befriending the kindly rehabilitator, Warden Pope, avoiding the jail's chief jailer, Brad Bellick and searching for his brother. It does not take long for him to find him, his brother is death row inmate Lincoln Burrows.

Lincoln, convicted for killing the Vice President's brother, has long maintained his innocence and Michael, inclined to believe him has become incarcerated with a bold plan; he is going to break his brother out of the jail before the execution. Tattooed all over Michael's body are the clues needed to escape the prison; names of streets, people, equipment and most importantly, the tattoo acts as a map incorporating the blueprints for the building. Michael begins taking medicine to appear to have diabetes, which gets him daily access to the infirmary, which is the place he believes is best to break out from. As the days tick by, Michael executes his plan on the inside.

On the outside, Lincoln's lawyer and old flame, Veronica, begins following the clues needed to exonerate Lincoln. As the date of his execution comes closer, she realizes there is a conspiracy surrounding the case, from a tape that shows Lincoln killing Terrence Steadmen with sound that does not fit the image and witnesses that keep getting killed. As Veronica digs deeper, Lincoln's family is killed and her leads keep coming up dead, which leads her to trust a legal aid lawyer who believes Lincoln could be innocent. Pursued by two Secret Service Agents, Veronica begins to expose a conspiracy that leads to the Vice President and a shadowy company controlling her.

And as the date of their escape comes closer, Michael is forced to trust key people on the inside and those who find out about his plan, complicating his life.

When I write that Prison Break is ideal for DVD with its first season, what I mean is that the nature of the show and how strongly it is serialized makes for a good continuous viewing experience. Indeed, one wonders why this show was so popular on its first run, as most of the episodes have very little that actually occurs. For example, the plot of one episode is "Michael gets a bolt from a riser in order to fashion a 1/4" allen wrench for himself." This is, as one might guess, hardly compelling in its basic subject. However, the various steps Michael has to go through to get the bolt and what he needs it for matter quite a bit.

Similarly, Prison Break establishes several threads and after a point, it stops trying to explain them to those who might just be tuning in for a single episode. Instead, Michael gets himself and Lincoln on the work details by teasing the work crew leader, a prisoner named Abruzzi, with the idea that he knows the identity of a mob witness, Fibinachi. Withholding that information keeps Michael alive and promises to secure a plane when the group breaks out.

Where Prison Break falls down on DVD is in its use of the footage shot that defines it as a television show. Before most of the commercial breaks, there is a dramatic speeding through the tunnels of the prison and a crescendo that takes the viewer to commercial. On DVD, this is a supreme annoyance and one that the producers ought to have considered doing away with for the DVD presentation. Alas, they chose to preserve the originally aired episodes and this is distracting and annoying.

Prison Break is exceptionally plot heavy, though it does a good job of keeping the plot moving by character acts that sometimes have nothing to do with the main story. For example, in one episode, one of the correctional officers pulls the work crew out of the officer's rest area reconstruction project - delaying their efforts to escape - to have a nooner with Pope's secretary. This has nothing to do with anything else, but it does lend a credibility and complexity to the storyline that makes the show work.

Of course, the very best television shows have most of the actions happen as the result of the critical characters. In the first season of Prison Break, the main characters are:

Michael Scofield - A highly educated architect, he has purposely gotten himself incarcerated because he believes he has the ultimate plan to get himself and his brother out of prison. Detail-oriented and observant, he has a deep compassion and a strong moral core, which leads him to befriend some of the inmates who are prone to abuse by the guards or the bigger inmates. He is focused on getting his brother out,

Lincoln Burrows - A petty thug who appears to have erased a $90,000 debt to some sharks by killing the Vice President's brother. Trying to keep his son from a life of crime, Lincoln is hunted even in prison by forces much bigger than himself,

Sucre - Michael's cellmate, he is deeply in love with a woman who is carrying his baby, but seems to be falling for a neighborhood guy who is a creep. He is a romantic and was a petty thief who robbed the same place once too often,

John Abruzzi - A mobster who has the means to help Michael and Lincoln escape. He is desperate to know who the rat who turned him in is and he feels a lot of pressure to keep in good with his mob bosses. Loathes T-Bag,

Charles Westmoreland - An old convict, he has a cat grandfathered in from when such things were allowed. He is a kindly gentleman who tries to stay out of trouble and is trusted by the guards. Allegedly the famed robber D.B. Cooper, Westmoreland seems to have the means to establish a life outside of crime if the breakout succeeds,

C-Note - An inmate who is working to convince his family he is still in Iraq, he is the leader of a coalition of black prisoners until he realizes Scofield is up to something and insists on getting in on it. He is also the supplier of all things pharmaceutical for the inmates,

Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell - A convicted killer and child molester, he is the local prison rapist and when his attempts to seduce Michael fail, he becomes fascinated by him. He soon figures out what is going on and gets in by threatening to expose Scofield's plans,

Bellick - Chief correctional officer, he is corrupt and frequently abuses his power. He is suspicious of Scofield and begins to investigate him when there is too much coincidental activity around Michael. On the mob's payroll and looking to take Pope's position,

Dr. Sara Tancredi - A former heroin addict, now the hospital's doctor, she is the governor's daughter and she has a crush on Michael,

Veronica Donovan - Lawyer for Lincoln and his former love. She senses something is afoul with the case that convicted him and moves to exonerate him after her engagement falls apart. Dogged in her pursuit of the truth,

L.J. Burrows - Lincoln's namesake, he begins to get into trouble after Lincoln is incarcerated. He witnesses his mother being killed by Secret Service Agent Kellerman and is hunted from that point on,

Paul Kellerman - The Secret Service Agent who seems to be cleaning up any and every loose end surrounding the murder of Terrence Steadman. He is not above murdering for the Vice President and has a distrust of the mysterious company,

and Warden Pope - Preparing to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary, he trusts Michael to help him build a replica of the Taj Mahal. He believes in rehabilitation, abhors the death penalty and becomes suspicious as the Lincoln Burrows case begins to become more and more active again.

Prison Break in its first season is hardly a masterwork of acting, though all of the men in the prison are compelling and realistic in their roles. We believe each of them could be a prisoner and in that regard, the show works.

Despite his second billing, it is Wentworth Miller as Michael Scofield who moves the show forward as he is utterly believable as both the prisoner and the brilliant architect. Miller has the ability to work his way around all of the technobabble and in the flashbacks he is quiet and brooding in an intelligent and compelling way. Miller makes us believe in the reality of the way Scofield's mind works.

On DVD, several of the episodes have deleted or reworked scenes and there are a good number of commentary tracks. Ironically, while not every episode has a commentary track, some of the episodes actually have two. For those who are into this, this adds some real value to the boxed set.

While Prison Break is largely about the execution of a daring prison breakout, it has the requisite reality of being on the inside. As a result, there are a number of uncomfortable scenes involving violence and prison rape. Not a pleasant subject, but had the series been lacking either, it would not have worked. And despite how a very late episode fills in the extensive backstory of each principle character, it is never far from the viewer's mind that most of the people on the show are not good people.

In the end, there are very few characters that the viewer cares about, but there is enough going for the show that I will enthusiastically recommend it, even with its flaws.

For other surprisingly strong first seasons, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The West Wing - Season 1
Gilmore Girls - Season 1
Frasier - The Complete First Season


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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