Tube Talk: This season’s breakout hit—FOX’s Prison Break

Like millions of Americans, I couldn’t wait for new episodes of Prison Break. (Of course, it was nothing compared with how long fans of The Sopranos waited for a new season.) Leaving Michael and the guys stuck with only a humongous piece of plumbing between them and freedom (well, their next step toward freedom) wasn’t easy, but the wait is finally over.

Some people ask why I love a series with so many gaping plot holes. But it’s one of those rare shows—like 24, which now follows Prison Break on Monday nights, making for one powerful line-up—where you get so caught up with the characters and situations that you’re willing to overlook the obvious.

Bottom line: this ain’t no reality show. (Not that reality shows are so realistic, anyway.)

If Prison Break were based in reality, it’d be incredibly dull. First, the show’s set in Illinois where we’ve had a moratorium on the death penalty since 2000. Acknowledging that fact alone would kill every iota of suspense. Without the countdown to Linc’s execution, Michael would have plenty of time to prove his brother’s innocence without a jailbreak.

Sure, they’ve explained how Michael’s this strange sort of genius who sees things differently from the rest of us. Sure, he had an engineering job with the firm that got the penitentiary’s renovation contract and was on the team handling the job. Sure, he got himself tattooed with prison details and staged a perfectly failed armed robbery just in time to get himself incarcerated at that very prison shortly before his brother’s scheduled execution.

What are the odds they’d wind up in the same prison, a prison where a death row convict mixes with the general population so he can talk—and be on a work crew—with his brother?

OK. You caught me. I’ve never been to prison. I’ve never known anyone who’s been to prison (at least not that I know of). Maybe that’s why Prison Break works for me.

I don’t have problems believing Abruzzi and T-Bag have barter and bribery systems in place with the guards. But a felon named T-Bag? How menacing is that? Good thing Robert Knepper plays “slimy inbred sociopath” so convincingly.

And what about Michael’s waist-to-neck, full-sleeved tattoo? Naturally, he couldn’t risk the guards—or the prison doctor/ governor’s daughter—seeing the prison’s blueprints on his skin, so he had a tattoo artist work the details into an intricate design. So intricate they sometimes need special effects to show us what the images really are. It’s fun, but is it really functional?

I won’t even get into the conspiracy subplot involving the vice president, or how Linc’s ex-girlfriend/lawyer and teen-age son keep outwitting the Secret Service guys chasing them. That’s yet another layer of Prison Break’s intrigue.

Oddly enough, the show’s dramatic lighting makes the prison’s exterior appear beautiful. A beautiful prison? Well, much of the show is filmed at a real (albeit former) penitentiary, so I guess some incongruities are truer to life than you might think. I guess knowing that helps me gloss over the less-than-believable bits and enjoy the show.

Programming note: Prison Break airs Mondays at 7 p.m. on FOX.

Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications including American Bungalow, SatelliteORBIT and TVGuide.

From the April 5-11, 2006, issue

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