[08/04/05 - 12:00 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Prison Break" (FOX)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

Please note: As a courtesy, please do not reproduce these comments to newsgroups, forums or other online places. Links only please.

With the official start of the 2005-06 season less than two months away, the drumbeats have begun by the networks to tout their new comedies and dramas. What should you keep your eye out for? What should you avoid at all costs? While it's still a little early for full reviews (some recasting and reshooting will be done on a good chunk of them), we thought we'd spend the next month previewing what's in store for the upcoming season. Each day we'll look at two of the 47 new series set to premiere this season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot.

There's no particular order here, just whatever's next on the stack of tapes. So without further ado, here's today's entries:

(Mondays at 9:00/8:00c this fall)

The network's description: "MICHAEL SCOFIELD (Wentworth Miller, "The Human Stain") is a desperate man in a desperate situation. His brother, LINCOLN BURROWS (Dominic Purcell, "John Doe," "Blade: Trinity"), is on death row and scheduled to die in a few months for a murder Michael is convinced Lincoln did not commit. With no other options and time winding down, Michael holds up a bank to get himself incarcerated alongside his brother in Fox River State Penitentiary. Once he's inside, we learn that Michael � a structural engineer with the blueprints for the prison � has hatched an elaborate plan to break Lincoln out and prove his innocence. Senior correctional officer BELLICK (Wade Williams, "Collateral") offers some prison wisdom as Michael arrives. Then, with the help of his cellmate, SUCRE (Amaury Nolasco, "Mr. 3000"), Michael begins to align himself with a disparate group of prisoners, including former mob boss JOHN ABRUZZI (Peter Stormare, "Fargo," "Minority Report") and CHARLES WESTMORELAND (Muse Watson, "I Know What You Did Last Summer"), a man some believe to be the infamous skyjacker D.B. Cooper. On the outside Michael has only one ally, his defense attorney and longtime friend, VERONICA DONOVAN (Robin Tunney, "The Craft," "End of Days") � who is Lincoln's former girlfriend. Meanwhile, Lincoln's 15-year-old son, LJ (Marshall Allman), is now adrift without his Uncle Michael's positive influence. Rounding out the cast are Sarah Wayne Callies ("The Celestine Prophesy") as prison doctor SARA TANCREDI, whom Michael ends up visiting more often than he should, and Stacy Keach ("Titus," "Mike Hammer") as the powerful WARDEN POPE, who forges a close, almost father-son relationship with the new convict. This intriguing new series promises to reveal additional pieces of the puzzle each week as Michael carries out his daring plan to mastermind the ultimate PRISON BREAK � and solve the far-reaching national-scale conspiracy that landed him there in the first place."

What did they leave out: It's probably the smartest, most intricately plotted pilot I've seen in quite some time.

The plot in a nutshell: Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) has a plan. It all begins with getting himself arrested after holding up a bank in downtown Chicago (and it's shot there - woohoo!). At his trial, the previously arrest-free Michael turns down a plea bargain - much to the surprise of his lawyer Veronica Donovan (Robin Tunney) - asking only that his sentence be served at the Fox River State Penitentiary. There, more seeds to his plan are sowed: he cozies up to the prison's doctor (Sarah Wayne Callies) by faking diabetes, offers his services to an imprisoned mob boss (Peter Stormare), makes friends with his new cellmate (Amaury Nolasco), tries to make inroads with an old con (Muse Watson), purposely torpedoes making nice with the warden (Stacy Keach) and (in one of the pilot's cooler sequences) tests the infrastructure of the prison with various pieces of origami. His plan - break his death row inmate brother Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) out. It seems that Burrows was convicted of killing the Vice President's brother and the clock is ticking towards him getting the needle. But Lincoln insists he's innocent, despite nearly everyone - including his ex (Jessalyn Gilsig), his son (Marshall Allman) and a pair curiously overzealous Secret Service agents - writing him off. Michael however does believe and all the seeds he just planted are about to begin bearing fruit.

What works: "Prison Break" is one of those shows that works better the less you know about it. Half the fun is following all the twists and turns of the plot, the avenues of which lead to a great reveal at the very end. It's just one of those rare shows that just pops from the very minute it starts and continues to percolate until the very last frame. That aspect is perfectly embodied by Wentworth Miller's icy coolness as he remains three steps ahead of any potential stumbling blocks, blocks which as you'll see are quickly starting to pile up. In some ways, "Prison Break" feels exactly what the similarly time-constrained "24" should be - a fun ride but very aware of its plan to carry out the season with a few surprises tossed in for good measure. If you're a fan of "24" or just plot-driven dramatic narratives in general you simply have to check out this show.

What doesn't: Not surprisingly the show wavers when it steers clear of the central drama. Scenes in which we track Lincoln's troubled son as he begins to follow in his hoodlum footsteps or Veronica's home life as she plans her wedding (despite also being Lincoln's ex) definitely slow down the pacing. They're completely forgivable however as long as the main narrative remains as interesting and compelling as it is in the pilot.

The challenges ahead: I'm not going to question the show's longevity (Michael only has three months to do what the title indicates) as the pilot is good enough to make me blindly follow it wherever the producers go (in prison or out of it). Nevertheless are viewers willing to embrace such a narrowly plotted show? On a network that's notorious for its lack of long-term commitments? We'll find out later this month on FOX.

  [august 2005]  


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