Thứ Năm, 4 tháng 6, 2009

All good things must come to an end!

Whenever I talk about the best shows on television, there are of course the usual suspects like Lost and 24. But for four years now, there's been a show that some would call a guilty pleasure, but others, those of us who get it (Stephen King even called it his favorite TV show!) place in that same tier of truly must-see TV. We would call this show a high-octane thrill ride, a balls-to-the-wall action-adventure that rarely fails to entertain. We'd call it a show that has some of TV's coolest heroes and most vile villains. That show is PRISON BREAK, and I am here to give one of TV's best series the send-off it deserves. Because, man, it's been one hell of a run.

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I remember sitting down to watch Prison Break's pilot episode with my brother one late summer night. Fox had seemed to bill the show as the second coming of 24, and though both of us may have been slightly skeptical going in, you had to be impressed by the ambitious premise. I mean, so many shows are built around the most generic of ideas - doctors, lawyers, cops - how many shows come out of the gate with a high-concept plot about a guy trying to break his framed brother out of a maximum-security prison? I wish more series had the guts to aim for something similarly original. Anyways, as we sat down to watch that first episode, I remember kind of taking it in, digesting everything that was going on, figuring out the many characters introduced to us, from the McGuyver-esque Michael Scofield to the deranged inmate Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell. But I also remember that, when the episode was over, my brother and I shared a similar thought: "wow, that was actually pretty damn cool." From that moment on, we were hooked.

Season 1 of Prison Break was great from start to finish. For one thing, the show was one of the few on TV that could match the intensity of 24. For another, it introduced a hero almost as fun to watch as Jack Bauer - that being Michael Scofield. Wentworth Miller helped make Scofield into one of the most iconic TV characters of the last several years - a brilliant structural engineer who was cool as ice under pressure and always, *always* had a plan. Scofield faced down countless dangers with a nod and a smile. Not to mention his uncanny ability to fashion explosives out of common household items. In Season 1 of the show, one of the main gimmicks was the fact that Scofield had actually tattooed his entire body with a complex series of symbols that actually served as coded plan by which to escape the prison where he and his brother were being held. What could have been cheesy instead became a fun-to-decipher plot point. At the same time though, Prison Break never exactly played things safe ...

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... Because part of what made PB so great was that it had absolutely zero shame in being over-the-top, crazy, and basically a weekly B-movie in the best sense of the word. Season 1 never pretended to be a straightforward drama. There were the crazy tattoos. There was action-movie icon Stacy Keach as the badass prison warden. And then there was T-Bag ...

I mean, what other show on TV (let alone network TV) would feature a racist, bisexual, hillbilly redneck serial killer as one of its featured characters? T-Bag has to be one of the most bat-$%#* insane characters ever on TV, and also one of the most entertaining. His Southern-fried drawl, strange facial ticks, and penchant for speaking in very, um, "colorful" prose made him a villain who you couldn't help but love to hate - even root for at times. But, T-Bag also served an important role on the show - he was there to show that this wouldn't be a series simply about heroic characters who don't deserve to be imprisoned. This would, in fact, be a show with a lot of moral ambiguity. Even our hero, Scofield - if in order to free his brother, he had to work with and in some sense enable the likes of a T-Bag - what did that say about the ends justifying the means? To its credit, the show consistently kept this theme at the forefront of the writing even up until the final episode -- they reminded us that, even though Michael *could* have destroyed Scylla and ran as Mahone suggested, ultimately had *had* to do some good with it, otherwise all of his stuggles would have really been for nothing.

Speaking of Mahone, a lot of people prematurely dismissed Season 2 of PB simply because they didn't think the show needed to continue post-breakout. But it turned out that having the convicts on the run was equally as fun as having them in jail. A huge part of why the season worked was William Fichtner as Alex Mahone - aka one of the most badass characters on TV. As a relentless but unstable FBI agent with an ultra-violent, semi-psychotic streak, Mahone was the perfect foil for the ever elusive Scofield. With Fichtner on board from Season 2 on, PB got an instant injection of 100%, pure gravitas - a dosage that would make Jack Bauer himself just a little bit jealous.

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Mahone was one of a number of the show's great characters. Lincoln Burrows was in many ways the perfect compliment to his brother (or not-quite-brother) Michael. He was like the Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart to Scofield's Bret "The Hitman." (yeah! 80's WWF references!). The muscle behind the brains, if you will. Fernando Sucre became a fan favorite because he was basically the good-hearted guy who just wanted to reuinite with his family, but who, at the same time, would risk anything to help Michael. Dr. Sara Tancredi was the prison doctor with a heart of gold, who also had a dark side that included drug addiction and alcoholism. And who can forget Brad Bellick, a sad-sack prison guard who was a c-grade thug and the classic loser / lackey. Brad was a classic, Stephen King-esque character, who you had to root for almost out of pity. In addition, each season tended to have its own breakout characters - many of whom took a little while to really hit home with the audience, but who soon became indespensible to the show's mythology.

Season 1 had Abruzze - a silent-but-violent gang leader who was played memorably by the great Peter Stormaire. There was C-Note, a hardened con also looking after his family's interests. It also had Robin Tunney as Veronica, the intrepid girlfriend to Lincoln, and Charles Westmoreland, an old-timer said to actually be the famed criminal D.B. Cooper . And as mentioned, Stacy Keach, who pretty much just plain rules it. Later came Mahone, and Paul Kellerman - another great villain who made a surprise return in the series finale. There was Lechero, who took on a large role as the imposing boss of a Panamanian prison - that served as the setting for much of Season 3. As the mythology of the show deepened to include the conspiratorial schemes of The Company, we in turn were introduced to some of the show's most memorable antagonists. There was the sinister head of The Company - The General, Michael's own treacherous mother, Christina Rose, and of course, one of the show's best characters - Gretchen. Gretchen evolved into one of the most fun and downright evil characters out there - always one step ahead of everyone else, tough as nails, and willing to do pretty much anything if it meant coming out on top. As played with tons of femme fatale cruelty by Jodi Lynn O'Keefe, Gretchen was easily one of the best things about the show as it progressed through seasons 3 and 4. Season 4 also brought in Michael Rappaport as Agent Don Self, a smart-assed FBI Agent who at first worked with Scofield and co, only to betray them for his own selfish reasons.

As you can see, the show had no shortage of memorable characters. Most shows would kill to have so many great heroes and villains, and yet Prison Break seemed to never be in short supply of fresh new faces. They also consistently cast actors who seemed to have a ton of fun with the show's unabashed campiness. I mean, PB put each of its characters through hell, and yet the actors always seemed game for just about anything.

TV will simply be a lot less awesome without PB on the air. Not many other shows have or will ever dare to be as insane, as twisted, as action-packed, or as full of twists and turns, as Prison Break. PB is that rare show that didn't really play by any "rules" of TV and therefore left you with almost no idea of what to expect episode to episode. And as I'm about to get into, the show never really let up throughout its four years. Even if there was a little drop in quality towards the end, the finale more than made up it.

Which brings me to:

PRISON BREAK - Series Finale Review:

- Wow, what a way to close the book on Prison Break. Previously in this post, I've talked extensively about why this show has been so thoroughly entertaining throughout its four year run. So for now, I'll keep this review short and just say this: after a couple of episodes that didn't feel like PB at its best, the show rebounded completely for its final installment - delivering a blistering finale that was an exciting, sad, and fitting finish to a great series. This was one hell of a double-sized episode.

Part of what made this episode work so well was that literally every major character had their big moment. One of the biggest complaints over the last several weeks was that characters like Mahone, Self, and T-Bag at times seemed merely along for the ride, with no real reason to still be hanging around after all this time. Because they were not the focus of the plot, characters like Mahone and T-Bag started to feel a bit watered-down. I mean, what good was Mahone if he wasn't the unstable ass-kicker that we knew and loved? What was the point of T-Bag if he wasn't the psycho-killer that we knew he could and should be? Well ... those complaints were handily addressed in this finale. Mahone's conflicted emotions over Scylla were put in the spotlight here - we saw that, while he had become loyal to the Scofield and Burrows, he also wanted a way out of all the craziness. But we also saw Mahone as the uber-badass. I mean, holy crap, when Mahone was stuck in a room with the ultra-evil Christina and her henchmen, and had to kick some ass in order to see Michael's plan through to completion ... well, come on, who *didn't* want to stand up and cheer when William by-god Fichtner took the %#$@ down. What an awesome moment.

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Same goes for T-Bag in this ep - Bagwell's scenes with a held-hostage Sarah were vintage Prison Break, aka a glimpse of the old-school T-Bag, the guy who, before becoming something of a comic foil, was in fact deadly, creepy, and downright disturbing. How the writers consistently came up with the sketchiest things ever for T-Bag to say I do not know, but man, has he said some disturbingly quotable lines over the years.

Even Don Self was pretty kick ass, continuing from his strong showing last week in which he showed glimpses of the Self from earlier this season, who was fun to root for and a nice compliment to the rest of the cast. His final "kiss my ass" to the FBI agents dogging him for information was pretty great.

This ep also had some bigtime returns. Sucre's eventual return was pretty much a given, but I didn't guess that Michael's longtime ally would be paired with a returning C-Note. It was a lot of fun watching the two reunited amigos swoop in to save the day, and it was cool to see some resolution given to their long-running storylines. Kellerman's return was a big surprise - I was definitely shocked to see him back in the mix,although the return made sense and worked well as a plot device to help get Michael and co out of a seemingly impossible situation. I like the fact that Kellerman legitimately helped Michael and exposed the Company, but at the same time isn't some great altruist - clearly, his actions helped further his burgeoning political career, having him follow in the semi-shady footsteps of his old vice-presidential mentor.

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And again, I really have to give some credit to Kathleen Quinlan as Michael's uber-bitch of a mother, Christina. At first, I hated the idea of Michael's mom emerging as a big bad, and the character seemed like an unnecessary addition to the mix for a while. But, Quinlan made the character SO impossibly evil that I don't know if I've ever rooted harder for a television villain to get taken down. "Born a Scofield, die a Burrows!" Damn.

Finally, the show did a nice job bringing home the relationship between the brothers Scofield and Burrows. They nicely showed that even if they are not, in fact, related by blood, the two have a strong bond that keeps them fighting for one another through thick and thin. After a couple of somewhat flat attempts to put the two at odds, it was nice for both to once again be on the same page. Plus, Lincoln got off one of the lines of the night when he called out his wicked stepmother for being a psycho-%#&$.

One more thing this episode excelled at - giving us Michael Scofield at his best - making intricate plans in high-pressure situations, using his wits to outthink his opponents, pushed to the limit and yet able to overcome impossible odds.

The ending of this climactic episode was breathtaking. Finally, a happy ending for our heroes. Lincoln was reunited with Sophia and LJ. Sucre and C-Note were free to be with their families. Mahone was a free man. T-Bag got his ultimate reward - a trip back to Fox River penitentiary and a return to a life behind bars. Self, tragically, ended up broken and vegetative following his run-in with The Company. And Michael and Sarah, well, they *seemed* to have their storybook ending. They were free, exonerated, ready to live life, start a family, and move on and into a normal, peaceful life. Only an ominous nosebleed from Michael hinted that something might be a bit off. But the shocking revelation of the finale's four-years-later flash-forward was that this happy ending was not meant to be. We saw the characters gather and reunite - we assume it's a happy occasion, but then the truth is revealed: they met to visit the grave of Michael Scofield.

Michael's death was shocking, sad, but in many ways appropriate for the show. It showed that, ultimately, Michael had sacrificed himself for the greater good - ultimately, his legacy was this group of free, happy people who before they met him were on a path of destruction. But as for Michael, well, he could escape a maximum-security prison, but he couldn't escape death.

Of course, there are still a few questions about what happened to Michael, and a nagging feeling that there might be more to his apparent death than meets the eye. Michael always had a trump card to play, so who knows, perhaps he does have a trick or two up his sleeve. I suspect this will be revealed in the upcoming Prison Break special - "The Final Break" - but for now, the great thing about this ending is that it feels like a perfect finale even if, at the same time, it leaves things open for one final adventure.

But man, what an amazing episode of television. It's a testament to the writers and actors and the rest of the show's crew that PB rarely stopped being fun, it rarely stopped being exciting, and it always was home to a cast of characters that you either rooted for or loved to hate, and, sometimes, both. Like I said, it was one hell of a ride.

My grade: A+++

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