-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
Prison Break: The Complete First Season|
cast: Wentworth Miller, Dominic Purcell, Robin Tunney, Stacy Keach, and Wade Williams
creator: Paul Scheuring
710 minutes (15) 2005 widescreen ratio 1.78:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
The last three years have seen American TV fall back in love with the serial. The colossal
success of 24 and
proved conclusively that audiences had a hunger for stories that weren't neatly wrapped up
within one episode, and had consequences that were felt many episodes later. Whilst Lost
in particular has been justifiably criticised for taking this process to extremes (to the
extent that upcoming episodes will, allegedly, address the fact that three years have passed
off the island and barely three months on island) this format remains massively popular, with
post-apocalyptic series Jericho adopting the same format.
Prison Break, however, has been the most unexpected success of all the extended serials.
Originally commissioned to sit between seasons of 24 as a single serial, it has now
proved successful enough to spawn a second season and serious planning for a third. All the
more impressive when you take into account the relative unknowns in the cast and the increasingly
The series follows Michael Schofield (Wentworth Miller) who, the first time we see him, is
getting the finishing touches put on a full body tattoo. It's an unusual choice, especially
as Schofield seems to be a well-educated, almost urbane young man. The fact that he then walks
into a bank, holds it up and surrenders without firing a shot is even odder. Michael defends
himself in court, pleads guilty and is sent to Fox Creek Correctional Facility, run by warden
Henry Pope (Stacy Keach). Pope, noting that Michael is a structural engineer, offers him
leniency in his daily routine if he helps Pope build an anniversary present for his wife,
an offer Michael reluctantly accepts.
At the same time, he's forced to enter into alliances with several other inmates. Mafia don
Abruzzi (Peter Stormare), fixer C-Note (Rockmond Dunbar), veteran prisoner Westmoreland (Muse
Watson) and Michael's cellmate Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) are all vital to his goals, and all come
to realise exactly how far ahead Michael has planned his escape. They also come to realise that
Michael has done all this for his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), in the maximum-security
wing of Fox Creek and facing the death penalty for the murder of the Vice President's brother.
What none of them realise is what Michael has gone through to get inside Fox Creek and how he
plans to get out. His tattoo contains dozens of coded pieces of information relating to his
escape, acquired through Michael's old job. His firm helped renovate Fox Creek and now, as he
puts it, he literally has the plans of the prison "on him."
The sheer lunacy of the tattoo map lies at the heart of Prison Break's success. This
is a series that, like stylistic counterpart 24, harks back to the classic pulp stories
of the 1940s and 1950s. Michael's dedication to his brother and the enclosed environment they
find themselves in makes for some remarkably focussed and tense stories, and this, combined
with the sheer pulp energy of the series makes it incredibly gripping viewing. It's helped
still further by the fact that Michael may be fiercely intelligent but he's not infallible.
A burgeoning romance with prison doctor Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies) complicates matters,
as does his feud with psychopath T-Bag (a wonderfully creepy Robert Knepper). Michael is on a
clock, and crucially is not in control of that clock and as a result some episodes are unbearably
tense. An early two-parter in which he instigates a prison riot that spirals out of control and
ends up being responsible not only for the death of a guard but for T-Bag's discovery of the
escape plan is a prime example.
The conspiracy plot introduced as the series continues serves as a neat counterpart to the prison
scenes, with Robin Tunney, Frank Grillo and Marshall Allman all impressing as Lincoln's ex-girlfriend,
her dubious attorney and his son, respectively. There's a real sense of danger to this plot, with
serious doubt cast over Grillo's character in particular on more than one occasion. Similarly, the
sequence where L.J. (Allman) interrupts the murder of his family and is promptly framed for it is
However, the real powerhouses of the cast are all contained inside Fox Creek. Wentworth Miller
brings a tremendous, almost disturbing calm to his role as Michael, his total dedication to his
brother and refusal to accept anything other than success both inspiring and intimidating by
turns. Purcell is equally impressive as Lincoln, physically intimidating where Michael is
intellectually so, and emotional where Michael is cerebral. Likewise, Stormare turns in a
superb performance as the unusually sympathetic Abruzzi; Knepper chews the scenery with abandon;
and Garrison's character is both impressive and a nice surprise for recent history buffs. Together,
these men form a tight-knit core of characters whose interactions crackle with tension, violence
and wit in a way very few other casts manage.
That being said, there are problems... Like 24 before it, the series appears to have
been designed around a 12-episode initial order, and it struggles to find its feet for several
episodes the halfway mark. There's also a sense of the escape being artificially drawn out in
the final few instalments, as more and more problems are thrown in the brothers' way. The
flipside of this is a remarkable narrative neatness that sees minor characters take on huge
importance as the series goes on and alliances changing and reforming as the situation evolves.
These problems aside, Prison Break is a genuine success story, both as a series and
as a story format. The serial approach turns this into a relentless express train of tension
that constantly ratchets up, throws surprises at the viewer at every turn and ends in a way
that will leave you desperate for the next season. At time of writing, that second series has
upped the stakes even more, altering the nature of the series to great effect and killing
central characters with cheerful abandon. Whilst Michael and Lincoln's world is a terrifying
maelstrom of violence, innocence and conspiracies, it makes for fascinating and gripping
viewing and this is a must for anyone interested in classic, energetic drama and storytelling.
It's unique, and highly recommended.