One could be pardoned for forgetting that once upon a time, Prison break was actually pretty entertaining. The original premise — loosing the bonds of incarceration via the bonds of fraternal love — strikes a weird chord with me, and if we can forgive the predictable Fox-isms, that first season did fulfill its narrative promise rather satisfactorily. Insofar as the first part of the second season attempted to deal with the consequences of the first, it wasn’t too far off the mark, either (although the Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell character did wear out his welcome well before that).
I think everyone can agree that the unapologetically racist third season — Prison break: Pandemonium in Panamá! — was an unmitigated failure. (Not even the finale’s ill-advised inclusion of Rebekah del Rio’s Vini Reilly-less version of “Crying” could do much to redeem it.) It’s been downhill for the brothers Scofield and their merry band of felons ever since, and there’s a very simple reason why: the conspiracy’s just too goddamn thick. I’m not complaining about the show’s lack of verisimilitude so much as its writers’ total disregard for compulsively recurring to the same improbable emplotments: living relatives keep finding themselves held as collateral, while estranged and/or presumed dead relatives keep coming back to life; enemies keep becoming grudging allies, and steadfast allies either defect from the cause or become embittered enemies. Whenever the flip-flopping gets too confusing to follow, the writers just add a greater, previously unimagined threat to the mix. After season one, the antagonist function is tossed lazily around like a lukewarm, unappetizing potato: Brad Bellick, Alex Mahone, Paul Kellerman, Gretchen Morgan, General Krantz, Donald Self… Who cares, really? By now we know to expect each villain’s badassery to be trumped as we move up (or laterally across) the conspiratorial ladder of The Company.
Things didn’t have to turn out this way — narratively, I mean. Granted, the fugitive angle was inevitably going to get tedious, but there are always going to be metaphorical prisons these characters would have had to confront, right? But because Prison break is on Fox, such musings are pretty worthless. (Wentworth-less, even!) Instead we’re left with a sticky mess of half-baked characters and their competing interests. Not even the tepid Scofield-Tancredi romance manages to sweeten the pot (impassioned fan art notwithstanding).
And because we’re talking about Obama-era Fox here, we’ve also got to contend with the suddenly formidable figure of Michael and Lincoln’s mother, of all people. Not unlike Renee Walker on 24, I’ll venture that her being a very well-produced Woman With Boobs is meant to defer criticism of the show’s politics. Not that I can make out a coherent political message from Prison break, other than maybe a vague, delusional libertarian anti-government posture.
Since I’m growing increasingly skeptical of Miami-based series, I’ll go ahead and point out that we can now add Prison break to the tally. Maybe Dexter can help Michael and Linc get Scylla?