Friday, 2 January 2009

Prison Break Straps on the Water Skis

With ‘Prison Break’ currently on it’s mid-season break, now seems like the perfect time to dissect this one brilliant show like a Biology class Frog and try and explain just what has led to this almighty rut Schofield and the gang seem to be stuck in.

In case you haven’t been watching season 4 of Prison Break, let me give you a quick recap;

They need Scylla, but they can’t get it, wait now they have it, oh wait no they don’t, now they can’t get it back, ooh ooh now they’ve got it again, now they’ve lost it, now they’ve got it back again, now someone’s stolen it… and repeat.

Pepper in the worst TV storyline since Kim Bauer met a cougar, with Michael’s brain tumour and you just about have 'Prison Break’s fourth season in a nutshell.

If we’re honest, ‘Prison Break’ jumped the shark* the moment The Fox River 8 jumped the wall of the prison at the end of season 1…

It may be possible to argue that ‘Prison Break’ never actually jumped during the following two and a half seasons, though believe me, there are plenty of moments contending for the honour. But even the most die-hard of fans must admit though that Michael’s dream conversation with Westmoreland in episode fifteen of this lumbering fourth season gave it a rocket-boosted assist over that shark.

Now, ‘Prison Break’ has never been heavy on realism but that dream was totally out of context with the show, ‘24’ is another show that requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but they’d never insult their viewers with a corny dream sequence bringing back an old character, and a boring one at that, for a cheap shock.

As soon as Westmoreland’s craggy old face and that stupid cat came back from the dead, I knew that the show I once thought was going to be the greatest TV show of my generation had no chance of coming back from the infested waters it finds itself in.

The first season of ‘Prison Break’ really was brilliant, but looking back there was no way that they could sustain the show beyond the prison walls. The ways that they now keep the main protagonists involved with each other, beyond that prison setting, are becoming increasingly lazy and laborious.

One of the main problems plaguing ‘Prison Break’ at the moment is too many characters that I don’t care about, why is Gretchen still around? How many times is she going to be near death only to survive and come back once again? She was a waste of episode time in the last season and even more so this time around, they should have just capped her when they got rid of Whistler and been done with it.

Right now, the best thing about this show is Alexander Mahone, played by the brilliant William Fichtner, who has always been an underrated actor, but even he is struggling to polish these turd-like scripts and make them seem compelling, not to mention giving any sense of importance or urgency to the numerous Macguffins our heroes become involved in. This season has been littered with the sort of sloppy writing that has been creeping in since the end of season one.

It’s true the show has had it’s problems, but the whole Tancredi’s head in a box arc was a cheap tactic if they planned on bringing her back anyway. Sarah Wayne Callies’ pregnancy obviously would have posed the writers a problem and for her fleeting appearances in season 3 it was painfully obvious it wasn’t actually her playing the role of Sara, so when they killed her off, I for one was relieved, and a little happy because i want to chop her head off everytime she mopes onto my screen. But to give us a jaw-dropping moment like that and then snatch it back and say “oh wait, that didn’t really happen” was cheap. When it seemed like Michael’s love had been killed it gave real weight to their journey, the sacrifices they’d had to make and the effect it was having on those around them and begged the age old question of whether the means justify the end, but that all evaporated when they casually waltzed her back in at the start of this season.

A similar incident occurred at the start of both season 2 and season 4 with the deaths of Veronica and Whistler, two people who’s lives you’d been asked to invest your time in for the previous seasons, killed off with little to no build and seemingly no rhyme or reason for it as both hadn’t had their fates resolved, in my opinion at least. It’s almost a slap in the face for becoming emotionally invested – like one of those shitty film sequels where they kill off the survivors from the first film right at the start, because the original was never written with a sequel in mind.

It’s no wonder that the intelligent TV viewer seems to be switching over to the likes of ‘Mad Men’ and ‘The Wire’, shows that build slowly with arcs panning out over a number of seasons, where you may have to wait years for the pay-off to a storyline. The popularity of ‘The Wire’ is testament to the fact that people don’t need explosions and gunfights crowbarred in between every ad break to find a TV show compelling and addictive.

But sadly the concept of ‘slow-burn’ seems lost on the writers of ‘Prison Break’. The finest example of this coming in the recent episode where central character Brad Bellick met his demise; the writers must’ve had some idea that they were planning on offing Bellick at some point this year, so they could’ve started to develop his character as the season went on as having this urge to be a hero and give something back. Instead we got a couple of throwaway references to fatherhood and love in a conversation with Linc, that were completely out of character (and made it painfully obvious that he wasn’t long for this world) and the next thing we know, he’s sacrificing his life for the same guys he was trying to kill just two short seasons a go, for a cause he really had no investment in.

There was so little character development done with Bellick, yet the next episode the show got all sentimental and expected the viewers to care that he’d died. It was a major development as he’d been a series regular from day one, but by the time he was written out, he’d become nothing more than dead weight, which I’m assuming is why they wrote him out, but his death could’ve held so much more gravitas had it been done right, rather than have the feel that they just decided to try and boost ratings one week by killing a major character.

I’ll keep watching ‘Prison Break’ out of blind faith; it’s very rare that I’ll ditch a show, regardless of how bad it gets; how else can I explain my five seasons of ‘Dream Team’? And it’s fair to say that as far as TV goes there are worse ways to spend an hour of your life – step forward Gok Wan. Looking back now at the high concept, tension-filled drama of the sublime first season, it’s a shame what has become of this once great show and makes me wonder just how long it’s going to be before ‘Prison Break’ meets the same grisly end as so many of it’s characters…

*Jumping the shark - a colloquialism used by TV critics and fans to denote the point in a TV show's history where the plot veers off into absurd story lines or out-of-the-ordinary characterizations, particularly for a show with falling ratings apparently becoming more desperate to draw viewers in.

Shows that have "jumped the shark" are typically deemed to have passed their peak. The phrase is derivided from the ‘Happy Days’ episode in which The Fonz (Henry Winkler) literally jumped over a shark on water skis, generally considered by most to be the moment the classic show began it’s decline.


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