I have been trying to figure out Prison Break for over a year. It began with the most conventional of premises, as do many television shows (which says something about the paucity of good writers working in the medium today). A man (Michael Scofield) decides to become a criminal so that he can be incarcerated in the worst jail in America in order to free his brother (Lincoln Burrows) who has been wrongly accused of a murder. The wrong man theme is a dominant feature of many films (Clint Eastwood is a master at it.) and also of television. The quest to right the wrong appears and reappears throughout the history of popular media and also popular fiction. It is always a quest and often (as in the films of Quentin Tarantino) truth does not win even though the audience is always rooting for the underdog and even Tarantino plays games with some possible endings which might, just might resolve themselves into a victory for right over wrong.
In Prison Break the brothers are not only overwhelmed by the reality that one of them will be executed, but must also contend with the fact that they are the victims of a conspiracy that reaches into the highest levels of the government and includes the President. (The time is right for this, but the transparency of the connection to politics in Washington, circa 2007 seems forced and overdone.)
I am a fan of "wrong men" plots and also of conspiracies, as long as I don't have to take things too seriously. In Prison Break, the weight of the conspiracy is determined by the need to continue the narrative and to keep the show on the air. In the first season, the narrative followed all the various improbable ways in which the plans for escaping from Fox River Penitentiary were hatched. The entire narrative was so unreal that it didn’t much matter that the warden allowed one of the brothers into his confidence and into his office, or that prisoners were able to dig a tunnel under the not so watchful eyes of their guards.
The narrative tension in this show comes from something else, the possibility of success in a world violently bent on making success impossible and where danger can be found not only at every corner, but also within the very structure of society itself. Danger is after all, the core of modern-day politics in Bushworld (to borrow a wonderful metaphor from Maureen Dowd). It is the framework for nearly every action Bush and his government undertake with the overriding intent being to make it seem as if sleeper cells are everywhere. Danger surrounds us (the core premise of 24 and a host of other shows) and hence we need and must be prepared for the inevitable violence not only of criminals, but terrorists.
But, we have so few avenues of escape from this box! No sooner does a character in Prison Break become ever so slightly happy, than he or she must be brought down either by murder or by suicide. The prison is within and the protagonists are fighting their inner demons as much as they have to confront a world that has lost its moral compass.
We live, I think, in simulated Shakespearean times where tragedy lurks within the very fabric of politics, is the essence of the everyday and where storytelling must limit itself to demarcations of good and evil with no grey zones and even fewer moments of pleasure (unless, that is, you count the perversity of competition on American Idol as pleasurable).
This existential quagmire has become even more complex on Prison Break largely because the show is no longer about a prison escape, but is about the brothers being chased by nearly everyone from wicked policemen to even more evil politicians. And of course, this is another and important convention in television and film — the chase, the endless battle of good guys and bad guys — not very forensic in the CSI sense, but endlessly compelling, because after all, we want the good guys to win. After an entire season of convoluted plots, Scofield finally ended the show last week by saying, "that's it, we have to disappear."
So they must, into the dustbin of television history because no recent show has had the nerve to reveal a President who had an incestuous affair with her brother. (Yes, the President is female which raises other questions.) He then commits suicide in a seedy motel. The show has a secret agent who may have been a lover of the President as well and who tries to assassinate her and a famous FBI agent who is a drug addict so obsessed, so flawed that he kills and maims with impunity.
In this mix of tragedy, conspiracy, farce and double-crossing, Dr. Sarah Tancredi, (Scofield’s love interest) herself a recovering drug addict and the daughter of a murdered Governor (yes, he was found hanging in his house), is a calm centre of love and affection, trying to right the wrongs and being tortured in the process. Again, she is so flawed that inevitably, her demons reappear through torture and pain (how about being nearly drowned in a bath tub?).
Lost in an urban wilderness that seems populated by aliens who tunnel their way into conversations, where everyone is listening to and watching everyone else, and surveillance combined with paranoia is at the heart of social interaction, the brothers on Prison Break epitomize the sharp edge of despair that our culture has tumbled into. The brothers and their doctor have a little bit of integrity, but they have no discourse, no means of explaining either to each other or to anyone else, why this conspiracy is so important. It seems that it is just not enough to point out the fatal flaws of a President because at the heart of this show is a deep sense that failure is at the core of storytelling and politics.
We are living in the era of Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears who invite surveillance, enact the tragic consequences of conspiracy and manufacture their reality as a theater in the round. This latter day atmosphere of trivial scandal is why Prison Break may well be a designed failure since its own ideology must prevent it from becoming a success.