FRIDAY FLASHBACK: ‘Prison Break’
Welcome back to Friday Flashback! Crave Online’s look back at the best and worst TV series from television history.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. "It’s way too soon to be nostalgic for ‘Prison Break!’ That show was only canceled two years ago!"
And that’s right… it is too early to worry about a movie based on "Prison Break" starring Liam Neeson… or the ghost of Leslie Nielsen. But the recent guest spot of Robert Knepper as T-Bag on A&E’s "Breakout Kings" reminded me of the same kind of over-the-top ridiculousness that we used to get on a regular basis from "Prison Break."
For the first two seasons, "Prison Break" was great, escapist fun. And then it limped on for another two years. But let’s do this properly.
We begin our story with Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), a well-meaning thuggish kind of guy who falls into debt to some mobsters and manages to get himself framed for killing the brother of the Vice President, Terence Steadman (who isn’t Oprah’s boyfriend in this reality).
Of course, Lincoln did a lot to put himself in this position, but he didn’t actually pull the trigger. In twist number one, a shadowy organization called The Company used special effects to frame Lincoln in order to get at his secret agent father. And in twist number two, Steadman wasn’t actually dead.
But since Lincoln was sentenced to die, his brother Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) did the only sane and logical thing: he created an elaborate blueprint of Lincoln’s prison and had it tattooed all over his body as a road map for how to escape.
And as fake tattoos go, it was pretty cool. The rest of Michael’s plan hinged on him getting thrown into the same prison as his brother and then befriending mob boss John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare). Michael also had to win over his cellmate, who turned out to be Fernando Sucre (Amaury Nolasco). Michael also had to turn romeo in order to woo Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies), the prison doctor.
Now, Sara was a bit of a former drug addict herself, and she seemed to love the attention that she got from Michael. Plus, he did keep rioting inmates from molesting her on at least one occasion. But for all of Michael’s plans, a major part hinged on getting Sara to leave the door to her office open on the pivotal night of the escape. She did, then tried to commit suicide. But hey! She got better… more than once.
Getting back to Robert Knepper’s T-Bag, he was always a villain in this show. However, he was also one of the "breakout characters" (so to speak) and a major part of the series until the end. T-Bag was a vicious sexual predator who mostly targeted young men and he was an unrepentant killer.
And yet something about Knepper’s portrayal kept T-Bag from being a simple caricature. He had his own moments of pathos and Knepper even made the audience feel sorry for him at times. Of course, to blackmail his way into Michael’s escape plan, he did have to slit John Abruzzi’s throat… but nobody’s perfect!
The first sign that "Prison Break" was going to go in a fantastical direction came with Charles Westmoreland (Muse Watson), who (and I s*** you not) was really the famous D.B. Cooper.
Somehow Michael knew this going in and counted on Charles escaping with them to use his stolen millions to help them make their way outside the prison. Charles was actually one of the more sympathetic characters on the entire series. He does eventually get roped into Michael’s plan and he gets killed for his troubles. But "Prison Break" was never better in those final season one episodes when the plan finally went into effect and the "Fox River Eight" went over the wall to freedom.
The second season places the brothers and their allies on the run from the law while Michael and Lincoln try to clear their names and bring down the President. A super genius FBI Agent, Alexander Mahone (William Fichtner) begins hunting them down on behalf of The Company and he even kills Michael and Lincoln’s father(!) But they eventually forgive him. They’re weird that way.
Somehow, T-Bag beats everyone to Charles’ stash of millions and half the cast ends up stuck in a Panamanian prison, including Michael and Mahone. That brings us to season three and Susan B. Anthony…
Seriously, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe was way too hot for that character; whose real name turned out to be Gretchen. She spends most of the third season blackmailing Michael into helping a Company operative named James Whistler (Chris Vance) break out of the Panamanian prison. To prove her leverage, she had Sara beheaded and sent her head to Lincoln as a warning. Except the head didn’t actually belong to Sara… but if I haven’t been clear, Lincoln was not exactly a smart guy. Thinking of any kind was not his strong point.
If anything, the third season proved what a burden that the name and premise of "Prison Break" carried with it. How many times could the audience be asked to put up with the characters being thrown back into a prison, escaping said prison and then watching them go on the run from the law again? The fourth season changed that slightly by having almost the entire cast (including the returning Sara) get recruited as secret agents to help the government take down The Company.
Trust me, that made the stories on "Breakout Kings" seem nuanced and realistic by comparison. They even made Brad Bellick (Wade Williams) one of the team!
Bellick was one of the abusive prison guards in the first season, who FATALLY injured their friend Charles Westmoreland and then pursued Lincoln and Michael as a bounty hunter while looking for the Cooper money. He even ended up in the Panamanian prison with Michael, Mahone and T-Bag. And yet somehow, Bellick developed an offscreen friendship with Sucre that gets him into everyone’s good graces and he gets to die a hero’s death. And these people who he tormented for years… actually weep over him!!
I guess they’re very forgiving. But jeez…
But if you want to talk about guys to hate, I give you Don Self, portrayed by Michael "I’m not" Rapaport.
It was Self’s brilliant idea to recruit the cons to take down The Company and obtain something called Scylla, which may have been the least well defined MacGuffin I’ve ever seen. Self promised everyone their freedom in return for service, only to betray them all and try to sell Scylla to the highest bidder. If there was anyone in the series that deserved to be punched in the face several times, it was this guy.
There are some amusing side stories in season four, including T-Bag’s time as a surprisingly effective salesman while disguised as a ’70s porn star.
However, "Prison Break" found a new shark to jump over with the introduction of Christina Scofield (Kathleen Quinlan), Michael and Lincoln’s mother… who turned out to be one of the ultimate villains of the series. That’s right, the big bad was their MOM. It wasn’t enough that their dad was a secret agent, mom had to be one too!
And you can tell that the producers were hoping to get even more mileage out of the series when they framed Michael and Lincoln for an assassination just to make them public fugitives again! I’ll bet if the series hadn’t been canceled, we would have had another season with the brothers on the run before one or both of them ended up back in jail to start the cycle all over again.
I really enjoyed the first two seasons of "Prison Break," but it should have ended while it was still good. This show is a strong argument for a limited run. There simply wasn’t enough story to carry it for more than two years.
To make suggestions for future Friday Flashbacks, send me a tweet @BlairMarnell
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