TV pet peeve #3: Overthickening the plot

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).

Not exactly llorando, is he?
I preferred his ink sleeves.

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?

– J.C. Freñán

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The sun over Miami, or, The threat of non-diegetic time

I was pumped when the third season of Dexter made a conscientious effort to incorporate a more substantial Cuban American dimension to the political economic landscape of present day Miami.  Former Oz castmates Angel Batista and Lt. María Laguerta just weren’t doing it for me.  Jimmy Smits wasn’t half bad as the Assistant D.A. with serious anger management issues —  because all Latinos are calientes, sabes? — but the real windfall of this post-Ricky Martin renaissance of Latin@ consciousness was Smits’s onscreen wife, played by sleeper hottie Valerie Cruz.

Headshot ca. ¿quién sabe?
Headshot ca. ¿quién sabe?

The appeal of Cruz’s character, it seemed to me, was precisely her sobriety, her nonchalant elision of Latina stereotypes.  She also had a certain hardbody MILF quality that never fails to please.  You can imagine my delight, then, when I finally got around to watching the first season of nip/tuck and discovered that Cruz was a regular cast member.  My curiosity was piqued, and I schlepped over to IMDB to see what other projects she’s currently spicing up: apparently she’s slated for a cameo on an upcoming episode of Dollhouse.  I was more troubled to learn, though, that Ms. Cruz is putatively just a hair older than myself.  (And hence eminently dateable, right?)

Dr. Grace Santiago, ca. 2003
Dr. Grace Santiago, ca. 2003

This screen capture is from an episode of of nip/tuck that aired in September 2003.  Presumably it was shot well before that, let’s say summer of 2003.  If Ms. Cruz is indeed 32 today, she would just have turned 27 when this scene was shot.  Now, I’ve never been good at guessing people’s ages, but I always thought one of the benefits of having mestiza blood was that pigmented skin tends to age better.  ¿Qué onda, nena?  Either your agent has grossly overestimated how much he can fiddle with your reported age, or you are in some serious need of a better sunblock and a twice-daily regimen of Créme De La Mer, the concentrated stuff.  Or maybe the good Dr. Troy could echarte la mano with a chemical peel or something?

(Don’t even get me started on Cruz’s butch turn in The Dresden files.)

I’m still working my way through the first season, but for anyone keeping score, nip/tuck may well edge out Dexter as TV’s Most Interesting Miami-based Serial Drama.  (Michael C. Hall will always be David Fisher for me, six pack or no.  Sorry, dude.)  Incidentally, my vote for the Absolute Worst Serial Drama On Television goes to yet another Miami-based production, Burn notice, a show so unredeemably bad it doesn’t merit further discussion.

– J.C. Freñán