Prison Break was never a great television show, but it was always agreeably stupid.
Its original run, from 2005 to 2009, existed in a weird netherworld between the “he’s so smart, he can make a bomb out of a paper clip!” shenanigans of MacGyver and the rowdy antics of The Dukes of Hazzard. (I prefer to watch almost every scene imagining Waylon Jennings pausing the action to drawl, “Boy, them Prison Break boys sure are in a heap o’ trouble!”) The show was an early experiment in the idea that serialized drama didn’t have to be particularly good to be compulsively watchable, and, as such, it may be the most important television show of our era.
It also succeeded thanks to a star-making performance from Wentworth Miller, as the super-genius Michael Scofield. Michael had covered his body in tattoos designed to help him figure out how to break his brother out of prison; as TV show premises go, this one was objectively bugnuts, but Miller’s cool demeanor made it all seem weirdly plausible.
Indeed, while I wouldn’t call the first season of Prison Break “good,” it was a lot of fun. The characters might have all been prison movie clichés, and the idea of a man tattooing his entire body with an elaborate set of instructions in an attempt to help his brother escape from prison made little sense to begin with, to say nothing of how the show kept returning to it episode after episode. But, hey, the show had an irresistible momentum. It was a pure sugar-rush version of 24, with none of the messy neoconservative politics to get in the way of the fun.
Subsequent seasons labored far too hard to recapture the first season’s effortlessness. (At one point, the Prison Break boys went to gladiator prison!) But they at least continued along season one’s weightless path. This show was junk food, and proud of it. That’s what makes Prison Break’s return as a nine-episode miniseries so baffling: Now, the show wants to mean something. And it’s horrible.
The one big mistake Prison Break’s revival makes
If there’s one thing I know I don’t want from Prison Break, it’s an attempt to interrogate the founding principles of groups like ISIS. Much of this new miniseries is about Michael’s attempt to break out of a prison in Yemen, with the help of his ol’ Prison Break buddies and a heaping side of Islamophobia.
Said Islamophobia is not just offensive — it’s also kind of weird, because it doesn’t seem to be particularly mean-spirited. It’s as if the show decided to make its villains Islamic terrorists, bent on instituting Sharia law throughout the world, but then didn’t bother to think about how that might play into terrible stereotypes. “Who haven’t the Prison Break boys had to fight back against?” one of the writers might have asked, before immediately following up with, “Terrorists!” Indeed, I’d find this setup more brazenly insulting if it weren’t so clumsy.
Sure, Prison Break suggests that not all Muslims are terrorists. But its approach to characterization has always been, “I guess I heard about someone like this in a movie once?” and its approach to storytelling has always been, “I guess I heard about a situation like this in a movie once?” So, since the prison movie that seems to have inspired this season is the 1978 “thrown into a Turkish prison” classic Midnight Express, all of its efforts to differentiate its Muslim characters feel like so many stereotypical clichés.
And, to be clear, Prison Break has never been a series with great character development. All of its characters are fodder for the endless grist of its plot mill. (My favorite in the original series was the guy who decided to sail to Europe because he saw the Netherlands in a painting once.) They’re there to die and be resurrected and turn evil and then turn good again. They don’t have core traits so much as BuzzFeed personality quizzes for souls. But the Prison Break revival attempts to apply this approach to, in essence, a major world religion, and that’s where I draw the line.
As with every Prison Break season, there are a few moments of sublime stupidity scattered through the four episodes I’ve seen. The episode one cliffhanger is particularly goofy, and while I don’t entirely understand why the vile T-Bag is still a character the others are willing to have around, at least he has a robot arm now. (Seriously — he has a robot arm.) And I kind of admire the new season’s willingness to completely obliterate the original series’ tragic ending. Michael was dead, and now, he’s just not. (He opens the miniseries staring at a bird in a cage, which is kind of funny if you don’t roll your eyes at it.)
But the last thing I needed Prison Break to do was offer up a message weightier than “Being in prison seems like it wouldn’t be fun.” This was always a dumb show, full of clichés, but it seemed to be aware of that, and embraced its own idiocy. In its new miniseries incarnation, it wants to be a dumb show, full of clichés, that has something to say, and you’d be surprised how easily that tilts over into outright offensiveness.
Prison Break returns tonight on Fox at 9 pm Eastern. THOSE PRISON BREAK BOYS SURE ARE IN A PICKLE NOW!