Prison Break is about to return for a fourth season in September 2008, after its truncated third season ended earlier this year. However, this television series might just be in need of a break of its own!
A recap is probably in order. Prison Break was the breakout series of 2005 for FOX Television, wherein a successful engineer named Michael Scofield (played by then newcomer Wentworth Miller) goes to jail to free his brother Lincoln Burrows (played by Dominic Purcell) who is wrongly accused of a crime because of a government conspiracy against their father. Having worked on the prison as an engineer, Scofield tattoos the blueprint on his torso and begins to plan the prison escape with his brother, after getting himself thrown into the same prison.
Although the plot was original enough for television, elements of the storyline were drenched in outrageous improbability and intense farcicality. However, audiences found themselves pardoning the implausible aspects of the show, mainly because ultimately Prison Break served up episodes that kept audiences largely entertained. It was all rather fascinating to see Scofield cogitate each week to come up with new ideas as he kept finding his pre-determined plans undermined by his antagonists. The end of every episode sunk a hook in deep enough to ensure the audience would return the following week. And we did. The series was, in a word, fun!
Season two, which was much anticipated and long awaited, started off in 2006 promisingly, as we tuned in to see Scofield escaping with his brother Burrows, tackling hardship and hurdles along the way as they try to get to Panama, where the brothers believe they can live in peace. The series started tottering about the fourth episode in, for the simple reason that whilst the story in season one was contained focus-wise on the brothers mainly, in the second season with six other prison escapees, six other storylines were forced to be conceived.
In addition to these additional subplots causing the series to turn unwieldy, one could sense that even the scriptwriters found the task of maintaining interest and equal focus on each of the storylines extremely unmanageable and what we got instead were extremely weak and diluted subplots that in return foundered the entire second season. In addition, the last few episodes, even the aspects pertaining to Scofield and Burrows and the government conspiracy, were given such lackluster attention that one could only describe season two of Prison Break as one big mess in the end. It was almost like watching a van laden with too many things wobble and go off the tracks due to the overload!
In a desperate attempt to save the series, and probably to reinstate the correlation between the series’ title and plot, season two ended with Scofield being captured in Panama and thrown back into a prison called Sona, supposedly one of the worst prisons in Panama.
Hence season three started off in 2007, with Scofield finding himself in this new, unfriendly, and nasty territory. Some of his antagonists from the first two seasons, Mahone (played by William Fictner), Bellick (played by Wade Williams), and T-Bag (played by Robert Knepper), through a series of inconceivable mishaps and trials, also find themselves in Sona.
And this was where, if you had watched Prison Break since its inception, you might have wondered if this was even the same series. If one could recall, Bellick was a cold, manipulative, conniving warden in season one. Here in season three, the writers have basically turned him into a sniffling idiot. By the final episode of this season we see him begging Mahone to let him move in with Mahone if they escape from Sona, because he has no family of his own. The Bellick we knew from season one wouldn’t have been caught dead contemplating such a debasing act. T-Bag, who was the complicated rapist/murderer/child genius/sexually abused victim in the first two seasons, was reduced in the third season to a low rung brown-noser who tries to get in good with the boss-man of Sona. T-Bag was a wild, rabid dog in the first two seasons, and he was fascinating to watch on screen. In this season he was the sickly and detached dog that you wished would just die already — the character, not the dog. The characterization arcs given to these supporting characters were so extreme and far reaching that a mere suspension of disbelief didn't work to connect the viewers to these characters any longer.
A lot of the secondary characters had no aim or reason to be in the show this season, except for the fact that they were around in the first two seasons and needed to remain in the show probably for contractual reasons, but it was very clear that the show didn't know what to do with them. Therefore, for much of the season, they served like accompaniments to a meal that nobody really bothered to indulge in or even noticed were there.
The series was made into even more of a travesty with the introduction of a female villain, Susan B. Anthony (played by Jodi Lyn O’Keefe), who went around screaming and threatening so unconvincingly in such an overly dramatic fashion that very often one didn't know if Prison Break had turned into some sort of spoof or comedy. Jodi Lyn O’Keefe came across as a comedian pretending to be a serious actor pretending to do serious drama, and the actress didn't seem able to play a bad girl without going over the top. Often she went so over the top she missed “realism” by about a mile.
The episodes of season three — 13 episodes in all, due to the writers’ strike which had cut the season in half — were, in a word, inconsistent. This season encompassed episodes that were a little enticing stacked right next to episodes which were dreadfully dreary. This in turn made for a very irksome season, because even the episodes that were a little captivating never ever reached the heights of thrills and excitement that season one did. Season one had some good, deep hooks that you couldn’t simply shake off. Season three had some hooks, but they were the cheap kind that didn't stay in and broke off after awhile.
Therein lay the problem; season three was a cheaper version of season one. Season three still had the unconvincing scenes and risible twists, amidst gaping plot holes and stupendous coincidences in the storyline that demanded us to drop our disbelief and partake in their preposterous ideology (which we were willing to do for season one); however it was hard for viewers to do that with this season because this season just didn't bring the fun!
The encapsulating turns and beats that previously held up the series’ highly entertaining quality were almost non-existent in season three. Scofield’s maneuvers and tactical attempts seemed humdrum and tedious at best in this season, compared to his antics in season one. The entire season lead up to an escape from Sona. However, what was intended to be the climax of the season had an opposite effect as the lackluster escape was so dependent on such fantastical situations that one wondered if the makers of Prison Break were impudently assuming their viewers would be credulous enough to not question the ease and convenience with which circumstances and things fell magically into place at the right time, in the right direction, and in the right place for Scofield and his gang to escape so easily.
In addition, the gang's method of escaping via sidling and slithering on their bellies, underneath vehicles and the very noses of the guards who were at that very moment on full alert for possible escapees, not only was fatuous and absurd, it was also anticlimactic. In short, after enduring 11 episodes of build-up, and after anticipating a Sona prison break, the very essence of season three's main plot and climax thus was reduced to a fizzled out moment. It was like the fire had gone out, and the heat it generated before never even got that warm anyway. Like anti-climaxes tend to do, viewers were left feeling a little cheated.
In keeping with the labeling of this season as inconsistent, it has to be pointed out that, contradictorily at times, the turns and beats were used in such abundance (albeit in an unexciting manner), all crammed into one episode that the constant head-turning required to keep up, instead of thrilling the viewer, just made one lose interest faster. Most times, these twists and shifts didn't even function effectively within the scope of the plot, and were wastefully employed as a mere tool to just fill up the episodes with oversized dramatics that had no purpose.
Also, sometimes scenes and elements of the story were introduced, but then conveniently dropped midway, and never brought to a fruitful resolution, leaving the viewers frequently turbid over the inclusion of such scenes in the first place, especially when these scenes had no agenda in being there for the purposes of plot or characterization.
Even the government conspiracy that started off as cryptic and puzzling in season one had begun to drag the series down with its ceaseless and pointless continued existence as a plot twist. In this last season, it served as neither a great plot, nor as a good twist.
In fact, a more interesting twist would’ve been the internal wrangling between the actress who played Scofield’s love interest in seasons one and two, Sarah Wayne Callies and the studio responsible for Prison Break, FOX Television. From what has been gathered, Callies expected to be included in all episodes for season three. The writers, though, wanted her character to die, and Callies, feeling either insulted or that it was not worth her time returning, decided not to renew her contract. The writers were notified, and started plotting a way to deal with Callies’ character’s relation to the story. And what the writers came up with was about the most unpredictable thing you’re going to find in the third season’s offerings. Callies’ character was dealt with the same effect as a jagged-edged sword cutting through a silk sheet. The character’s cut was messy, obvious, and deliberate – metaphor and pun intended.
Another facet of the inconsistency in the third season has to do with lead actor Wentworth Miller. Although Miller showed the ability to absolutely command the screen when he had to emote melancholy and heartbreak, typically he was never capable of charming the audience the same way when portrayal of his character did not call for an extreme in emotion. In other words, he was never able to play “ordinary” — most notably in seasons one and two. When Miller attempted to play “ordinary”, he often times appeared as empty and vacuous in expression, thereby not effectively beguiling the series’ followers the way a leading star of a television program ought to have done. Furthermore, Miller relied solely on his constant “acting by brooding” technique to help in the characterization of Scofield throughout the first two seasons. His technique never worked because Scofield was not meant to be a one-dimensional, permanently frowning, plastic mannequin.
In season three, though, Miller cut down the brooding a little, and instead switched to whispering most of his lines in an inaudible tone that eventually became tedious, unnecessary, and got old very fast.
Brooding and whispering aside, it would be remiss not to point out that Miller’s acting did noticeably improve during part of the third season’s run, rather significantly in fact. Admittedly, there were certain episodes in season three where his acting could even have been viewed as pretty remarkable as we saw him play “ordinary” by using new and subtle facial depictions that he never had access to before. However, the problem is with the inconsistency in his performance in season three. Where there was an episode in which his performance could easily be lauded, an episode would follow where Miller appeared empty and vacuous yet again. Except this time, in season three, the man also looked just plain bored! One almost got the impression that perhaps Wentworth Miller himself, the leading star of this series, is bored and tired with the weariness of Prison Break, as are we.
As are we.