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Prison Break main cast

March 2007 SITE MAP   SEARCH

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

RATING: 8/10
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 Lost 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 complex plot.

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 utterly chilling.

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.

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