Please note: The following review is based on the first two episodes of the new season of "Prison Break." For those wishing not to be spoiled, it's best to stop reading here.
PRISON BREAK: SEASON THREE (FOX)
(Mondays at 8:00/7:00c starting tonight)
The network's description: "The season opener finds Michael Scofield in Sona, a hellish and deadly Panamanian prison where a previous riot has forced all authority out and has left the prisoners in charge of their own lives (and deaths). With the fate of his loved ones hanging in the balance, Michael must to find Whistler, a mysterious fellow inmate hiding within the prison's sewer system, in order to break him out from a prison from which there is no way out. Meanwhile, Lincoln searches for a missing Sara and receives troubling news about LJ on "Orientacion," the season premiere episode of PRISON BREAK airing Monday, Sept. 17 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. / Michael races to find a hidden Whistler before Mahone; searching for clues outside the prison, Lincoln runs into an old friend and makes a new one; T-Bag slithers his way into Lechero's graces as the prisoners threaten a revolt due to the lack of agua (water) in the "Fire/Water" episode of PRISON BREAK airing Monday, Sept. 24 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX."
What did they leave out: Yes, it's true - Sarah Wayne Callies and Marshall Allman are no longer regulars. Both only appear in brief cameos.
The plot in a nutshell: It's Fox River State Penitentiary 2: Beyond Thunderdome. Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) is back in prison, this time in a hellish Panamanian nightmare called Sona following the events of last season's finale. There he and his one-time pursuers Alexander Mahone (William Fichtner) and Brad Bellick (Wade Williams, who unfortunately for us and him, spends the first two episodes wearing essentially a diaper and nothing else) must now contend with their new environment. With little food, no guards (they simply drop off water and pick up the dead bodies once a week) and a "Lord of the Flies" mentality, the only source of order comes from Lechero ("The Wire's" Robert Wisdom), a singularly-named inmate who settles any and all disputes by making the involved parties fight to the death. Not surprisingly, it doesn't take long for Michael to rub Lechero and everyone else the wrong way. Thankfully there is some hope - Michael's still on the lam brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) is approached by the enigmatically-named Susan B. Anthony (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe) with the news we've suspected all along - Michael was strategically driven to Sona by the Company, where he must now break out the equally mysterious James Whistler (Chris Vance). And she gives Lincoln and Michael plenty of motivation too - they've caught Sara (Sarah Wayne Callies) and LJ (Marshall Allman) and will kill them if Whistler isn't free by the week's end. Making matters even worse, Whistler is literally the most wanted man in the prison - rumor has it if any of the cons can actually find him, they'll be given their ticket out of hell. And so, left with no other choice - Michael must find Whistler, make peace with Lechero and hatch a non-tattoo-driven escape plan. Along the way, T-Bag (Robert Knepper) will turn up as Lechero's newest sycophant, Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) will learn the fate of his beloved Maricruz and Lincoln will gain an ally on the outside (Danay Garcia) in his fight against the Company.
What works: The show's third incarnation proves to be its trickiest. Both a step back and a step forward from season two, the new season tables last year's emotional threads in favor of a return to season one's more methodically driven plot. Unfortunately, neither step...
What doesn't: ...puts the show back on solid ground. For all of its pulpy goodness, "Prison Break's" Achilles heel continues to be its reliance on MacGuffin devices to advance the plot rather than old fashioned storytelling. It's a facet that gets even uglier now that Michael's tattoo has lost his usefulness. Now without said umbrella, all of Michael's "aha!" moments come across as just plain silly rather than a sign of pre-planned intelligence. (Just wait and see how Michael diffuses a potential riot over a water shortage in the second episode. Or the daisy chain of coincidences that let Michael discover where Whistler is.) Not helping things is the show's increasingly ridiculous mythology as we're really supposed to believe the only way to rescue this Whistler person is for the Company to send the person that almost brought them to their knees to it? This from the Company that brought you the evilest Secret Service on television? Also tying up the show's shoe laces is that, in the end, this new dirtier, scarier prison proves to be just as easy to maneuver around as Fox River did. Any attempts to push the show into truly dark areas - will Michael really fight one of Lechero's goons to the death? - are quickly sidestepped in favor of easy outs. Basically, it's Fox River all over again, except this time Bellick's in a diaper. (Again, making the whole "this is the only way to spring Whistler?" facet all the more eye rolling.) I mean, it can't exactly be a Dante's "Abandon hope all ye who enter here"-esque version of hell when the visitor system inexplicably seems to work like clockwork. At least we've been spared from scene #47 of our heroes digging a hole and scrambling to cover it when the (insert antagonist(s) here) come. Maybe that's in episode three. That all being said, there's a reason why this show, for all its ridiculousness, sticks around - people love the characters. Which makes the decision to backburner everything from Michael's navel gazing with Sara to Sucre's quest to be with Maricruz in favor of everybody being covered in dirt fighting each other all the more puzzling. Two years of beleaguered loyalty will keep me on board for now...
The bottom line: ...but one can't help but be worn a little thin here.