Last year Mr and Mrs Paragraph Film Reviews destroyed all 4-and-a-bit seasons of Prison Break on Netflix. While it’s faaaar too much for a single paragraph, below is a list of all thoughts and issues. BEWARE: This article contains some spoilers – so if you want to be cautious, skip to the final paragraph.
The Key Players
Michael Schofield: architect-turned-inmate with a ‘genius’ mind, but clearly has a learning difficulty of some sort as he he’s continually putting everything and everyone on the line for his absolute meathead of a brother. His role boils down to babysitting the other characters, and hundreds of close-ups of his shifty eyes & pretty fake-looking tattoos, whilst he incessantly muttering nonsense about how everything is always part of “The Plan”. The writers give him some of the most random illnesses, scenarios and backstories of the group. He’s also slowly inflating as the series tick by, winding up as a bit of a pie in Season 4.
Lincoln Burrows: Michael’s aforementioned meathead brother. Initially and indisputably THE worst actor in the cast, but unlike everyone else he doesn’t switch off by the end of S4, and slowly becomes one of the better actors. Lincoln is there to continually hit people, fight people, jeopardise/ruin ‘The Plan’ and generally be the total opposite of Michael. It’s like a casting agent didn’t have the budget for Henry Rollins, so just went to a LA gym, found a similarly-looking beefcake that had done some amateur dramatics and said “YOU’RE HIRED! Please channel the energy and charisma of a root vegetable into your character”.
Theodore Bagwell (T-bag): absolutely nailed by Robert Knepper: easily the best and most interesting / entertaining character in the show. Easily the best actor in the show. Gets all of the best lines, stories and memorable parts. Almost forgot to mention that T-BAG IS THE CENTRAL BAD GUY, AND A TOTALLY DESPICABLE PERSON. He’s genuinely creepy, has a sleazy physicality, disturbing accent, is a sex offender (and pedophile) with serious daddy issues – not to mention a white supremacist, murderer, rapist, necrophiliac, vile, unhygienic, and leaves a trail of bodies and devastation behind him. He even ends up with a freaky deaky plastic hand. How this can end up as the best character is a testament to Knepper doing a stellar job, and spectacularly shit writing of every other character. On the flip side he’s clearly smart, resilient, eloquent, and above everything else – a survivor, with a penchant for eating any clues that will keep him in the game. T-Bags is undeniably the best thing about Prison Break and will go down as one of my all-time favourite villains / characters.
Sarah Tancredi: Initially appears as a minor character / romantic sub-plot / the only girl in the show, but ends up in all kinds of trouble, so decides to join the outlaws, landing herself a Kim Bauer-esque role – perpetually in the shit, being kidnapped, tortured, killed, beheaded and resurrected all in the name of terrible writing. It’s a shame because in S1 she was actually pretty good (in a badly written but well acted kind of way), but by S4 and beyond she clearly doesn’t give a single shit about anything but the money. For some reason, every time she gets sexed up the writers made every guy she tried to seduce ABSOLUTELY REPULSED by her advances – felt a little sorry for SWC by the end of the show. See also – Prison Break: The Final Break.
Alexander Mahone: played by Will Fitchner, would have been one of the best characters… if he had something good to work with. In season 2 he’s a generic bad-cop / bent lawman, season 3 he plays a zombie/junkie with flashes of clarity and only really gets a chance to shine in the fourth series. It’s an interesting character arc, given that everyone else is either good or bad, but any attempt to pad out his story feels like necessity or afterthought, which is a shame, as he’s easily the most talented actor in the show.
Gretchen Morgan: remember Nina from 24; a femme fatale with a deadly set of skills and no conscience… Imagine someone gave that great character to a bad actor. The writers try their best to make her the ‘sexy chick’, but she’s the second manliest thing about the show after Lincoln. She also has the ridiculous task of being the face of ‘THE COMPANY’ for S3: the combination of a bad actor, playing a bad character with a bad plotline is just too much to handle.
Fernando Sucre: bum-chinned token Latino petty criminal with the best intentions but a very bad streak of luck, and some shitty family members. When Sucre isn’t telling us that he’s doing it all for MARIE-FUCKING-CRUIZ (about 20 times in every episode), he’s generally shouting hispanic insults at people interfering with the plan, and calling Michael Papi in every scene. Quite a flat character given the amount of screentime he gets, but he’s played well enough by Amaury Nolasco.
John Abruzzi: stereotypical Italian-Mobster boss, right down the greasiest hair in history, and a stupid religious breakdown. Despite being such a ridiculous character, the he’s played very entertainingly and almost knowingly ridiculous by Peter Stormare – which only serves to make his early-ish departure more frustrating than sad.
Brad Bellick: Fox River’s mad dog head guard with only one weakness – his mammy! Bellick’s story arc is the most varied of the cast: S1 Nasty Guard, S2 deputised bounty hunter, S3 prison bitch, S4 begrudging good guy. He’s another case of a baddie played well, making you really dislike him. My only problem was that for the whole story he is all about himself, but in his last scene he makes a sacrifice, which just isn’t Bellick.
JL (Lincoln Junior): If anybody was the true ‘Kim Bauer’ of the Prison Break universe, it would be LJ, a weak and feable character that’s always either on the run or being captured by pretty much any person with a weapon, or 1/2 brain. Ultimately he just whimpers, cries and apologises to everyone for getting into trouble, again, and again, and again.
Paul Kellerman: an autonomous hit-man working in the FBI, for “The Company”. Doesn’t have a whole lot of range to cover, but is played well by Paul Anderson.
Charles Westmoreland: classic old-time, cat-loving, staying-out-of-trouble prisoner. Well played, but most notable for having the amazingly nerdy history of supposedly being the infamous DB Cooper.
Don Self, perhaps the worst-cast person in the show – nasally voice, non-intimidating, ginger-permed pansy of an FBI agent. Not impressed. Not scary.
Bill Kim: another terribly-cast government/FBI/Lawman body. Supposed to be intimidating and dangerous; looks like a school-kid in his dad’s suit.
Nika Volek – an eastern European stripper played by Holly Vallance. Clearly just there for ‘eye candy’ – shaky accent, but ultimately a bit of fresh casting.
Wyatt Mathewson: Season 4 company hitman, stoic but almost ‘Terminator’-esque in the things he does. Unrealistically brutal, and generally unbelievable in his style, method and ability to avoid detection (for a man-mountain of a guy).
Tweener: absolutely ridiculous white-rapper stereotype, who’s styled to look like a 90s boyband member. Shifty acting, but with such a crap character, it’s hard to say if it’s his fault, or the just a terrible character.
Writing and direction
There’s such an obvious distinction between the first two seasons and seasons 3 & 4. Series 1 is generally well-written, dramatic – and runs seamlessly in to Season 2, which has many well planned plot threads simultaneously running together for the duration. Then season three is born out of a ridiculously stupid twist in the last five minutes of S2, which feels like the ultimate tag-on to merely keep it all open-ended. The last 10 minutes of Season 3 also set up yet another season, which is infuriatingly bad – and short-sighted – writing for such a big show.
Season 1: THE ACTUAL PRISON BREAK! A season in which everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Every single aspect of Michael’s ridiculously convoluted prison escape plan is jeopardised and strained to wring out the maximum tension. Most episodes revolve around obtaining an object or access to a part of the prison that is ‘VITAL TO THE PLAN’ – it takes 40 minutes of twists and turns, but the gang usually get their way. Turns out to be an interesting look at life on the inside. Things of note: stupid Taj Mahal sub-plot, toe amputation, pretend diabetes, about 40 people getting shivved, random Christianity conversion, horrific flashback filler episode for no reason, prison poker, random acts of origami.
Season 2: BAND ON THE RUN. The not-looking-like-a-Christian-rock-band-at-all “Fox River Eight” escape prison but now must survive in their various factions, all searching for DB Cooper’s money. In this season, every coincidence and bit of luck is cashed in by the writers. Out of the whole of America, separated characters end up bumping in to each other all of the time. This was probably the peak of the show, as it juggled several good stories with loads of characters doing their own thing and plenty action. Things of note: nobody sleeps, European Goldfinch dot net, cartels, terror-baths, electrocution, forced suicide, plane ride.
Season 3: SHIT, THE SHOW’S STILL CALLED “PRISON BREAK”, BETTER PUT ‘EM BACK IN A PRISON! Half of the crew are in Sona, a ridiculous guard-free prison, where the inmates self-govern the joint; looks like a 3rd world crack den. The rest of the team are on the outside either helping the plan, or being held as collateral (aka completely written out). Probably the most boring series, and was thankfully cut in half by the writer’s guild strike. Feels like a sloppy re-hash of everything from season 1.
Season 4: SCYLLA. Totally couldn’t be assed watching it by this point, but having sunk 55 episodes before it, there didn’t seem like much point in quitting. The actors’ disdain is there for all to see by this point – nobody seems to give a shit as the story spirals from the ridiculous to the completely retarded. Some of the throwaway lines are supermassive holes in the story – like “oh yea, those guys escaped from that maximum security prison when a fire broke out, OBVS!”. WTF?!? To substitute for everything being terrible the writers in as many gratuitous fights, gunfights, and action scenes as the budget will allow. Shocking TV, feels like a totally different show to the first few series.
Prison Break – The Final Break: not being content with giving us a proper conclusion, wrapping up the entire story and showing us a ‘several years later’ scene at the end of S4, someone thought it would be a good idea to make a TV Movie. They found a single open-ended story from S4 (wasn’t difficult, there were about ten thousand) to milk, and boy, did they milk it. The long and short is that the love of Michael’s life – Sarah – has been put in to a sexy-but-dangerous women’s prison, and he needs to break her out. OMG, it’s like a role reversal!!! This is shockingly bad; from the women in prison angle, to the terribly acted lesbian inmates, to the whole cast not giving a shit, to the god-awful, rushed, final break. It was such a sour and cynical note to end what could have been a really good show.
Other things of note
Theme Song: has to be the most random, and ill-fitting piece of post-classical world music you ears will ever hear. Hints of Indian / Persian scales and singing, mixed over an orchestrated dramatic rhythm, and why not mix in a tad of dance beats at the end. I guess it’s fairly unique – but I have no idea what it has to do with the show.
Action scenes: for a show based on big set-pieces it handled human drama/action OK – but if you threw in cars, or anything on a remotely bigger scale the directors seemed to shit their pants and lose the ability to make sense of anything in front of the camera. Then the editing team had to cut the shit out of it, to make it more tense. End result – boring and/or incoherent car chases and shootouts every episode.
Stabs: In the middle of action scenes – when I assumed they’d break to adverts – a bizarre concoction of epilepsy triggering images, rapidly flash up on the screen to some loud, fast, panic-induing music that goes – DUN-DICKA-DICKA-DUN-DUN!!! Like every 5 minutes. For all +80 episodes!
I’m amazed that Prison Break went on for as long as it did. I can only assume that it was filling a void in the schedules or something. My biggest issue is a tag-team combo of the most staggeringly shit casting I can remember seeing, combined with some of the laziest and dumb writing you could imagine. In the end, someone, somewhere managed to force 83 episodes out of Prison Break, and like an absolute sucker, I watched every single one. My advice would be to watch series one and two, then walk away while the going’s good.