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On ‘Prison Break,’ there’s no escape

And that’s good, because the show’s best stories take place behind bars
/ Source: contributor

On "Prison Break's" fall finale, Michael Scofield said the best six words we could have possibly heard: "We're not getting out of here." An escape would have been satisfying, but sparing Michael's brother Lincoln from death in the electric chair by freeing the prisoners from the confines of Fox River State Penitentiary's walls would have hurt the FOX series tremendously. As the story has unfolded, "Prison Break" has, in many ways, set itself up to be the most convincing portrait of prison on television, even more realistic than HBO's "Oz." Its setting contributes the most: Filmed on location at an older, now-unused prison in Joliet, Ill., "Prison Break" has the gritty, dirty look that we associated with prison life, not the too-new, clean, glass-enclosed prison of "Oz." Despite being a network series, "Prison Break" hasn't shied away from the rawest parts of prison life: rape, murder, suicide, corruption, rioting, monotony, hopelessness. The limits of broadcast television have actually helped the show creatively. Although "Prison Break" has had its share of gratuitous violence, the violence and other horrors that stay off-screen are actually more powerful. After being claimed and raped by T-Bag, a prison gang leader who seems to be the personification of evil, a new, young inmate approached Michael Scofield in the showers and begged for help. Scofield refused, protecting his escape plan. The new inmate later hanged himself. We only saw his pleading and his quick death; everything else was off-camera, letting our imaginations fill in the gaps. Prepare to suspend disbeliefIn many ways, "Prison Break" relies intensely on viewers' imaginations. After his brother was convicted of murdering the Vice President's brother, Scofield, an engineer, planned an elaborate escape; had all of the clues, instructions and blueprints necessary tattooed across half his body; and then managed to get himself locked up at the same jail where his brother was being held. Suspension of disbelief starts at the execution itself, since Illinois' former governor issued a moratorium on the death penalty and commuted the sentences of those on death row, and since the state executes with lethal injection, not the electric chair. While Scofield's escape plan is relatively simple, he's had to go to extraordinarily absurd means to make it possible. When the reality of prison life interferes with his plan, he has to scheme on the fly, crafting ingenious solutions that play out like some kind of dysfunctional ballet. Nearly every step has forced Scofield to work with his fellow inmates, starting with his cellmate. He's come to rely and depend upon those incarcerated with him, and it's here that the series has found its life. Watching the pieces of the escape fall into place is entertaining, but it's much more fun to watch as the new "Fish" is forced to rapidly win the respect and trust of everyone from a racist murderer to a mob boss. Because they're all in such a confined space and a self-contained world, their actions have consequences that reverberate in an increasingly deafening way. No one trusts anyone else, and for good reason, but they all are forced to trust each other, at least when they're not literally or metaphorically stabbing one another. Last week, when the group grew too large to make escape possible, Abruzzi confronted T-Bag and held a razor blade to his throat. "I'm just an emissary for all the pain and suffering you caused, all the families you ruined, all the kids," Abruzzi told him, and T-Bag showed his humanity by begging for his pitiful life. "Maybe I deserve to die, maybe I do, but you're no better than me," T-Bag said. Then, a few seconds after winning a reprieve, he slit Abruzzi's throat. In a single scene, our allegiance switched back and forth between the two characters, both of whom are horrible people by any objective measure. No one is good or bad, including the series' hero Michael Scofield, who's been forced many times to make choices that are less than ideal. But Scofield and all of the prisoners are played and written as actual, complex human beings, which makes growing attached to them very possible.

Caricatures reign outside the wallsBy contrast, the characters who live outside the prison's walls are pathetic one-note caricatures. Most appalling is a Secret Service agent who is at least on the periphery of the conspiracy to frame Lincoln. He's fond of killing people for no discernible reason except that he's vaguely ordered to by an even more thinly crafted character, a woman who is Vice President and is running for President. The agent's partner suddenly developed a conscience last week, but that reversal came from nowhere and thus the consequence for his betrayal —his death — was weightless and completely predictable. The conspiracy storyline is thin, conventional and beyond cliche, and drags the whole series down into farce every time the action switches outside the prison walls. But that's exactly where Michael Scofield, his brother Lincoln, his cellmate Sucre, and his co-conspirators Charles Westmoreland, T-Bag, and C-Note were headed, at least before they were stymied by a janitor who noticed a hole in a pipe that shouldn't have been there. When it returns from its three-month hiatus, "Prison Break" could grant its inmates parole by letting Michael and his brother escape. Once they leave the prison, the show will apparently devote all its time to unraveling that conspiracy as the prisoners run around the country. The show's creator, Paul Scheuring, told The Chicago Tribune that once the escape comes, "it'll be every method of conveyance, as everyone runs around the country. It'll be 'The Great Escape.' Ultimately it becomes about all of them fulfilling their individual destinies, with the whole of America on their [trails]. It'll be 'The Fugitive' times six or 10." That's intriguing, but right now, "Prison Break" has the potential to become only a cartoon version of "The Fugitive" and "The Great Escape" drawn in crayon on a wet napkin. For now, because the show draws nearly all of its strength from its confined ensemble, a much longer sentence is definitely in order.

is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.