Chief Justice Mike Jackson broke out of prison once, if by "prison" you mean detention, and by "broke out" you mean casually walked out while the teacher wasn't looking.
Our reviews of Prison Break: Season One (Blu-ray) (published December 22nd, 2007), Prison Break: Season 2 (published October 3rd, 2007), Prison Break: Season Three (published September 8th, 2008), Prison Break: Season Three (Blu-Ray) (published August 22nd, 2008), and Prison Break: Season Four (published June 18th, 2009) are also available.
Most men would do anything to get out of prison…but Michael Scofield would do anything he can to get in.
The television landscape is awash with police procedurals, medical or legal dramas (which often focus more on personalities than on the profession), and clones of whatever reality television concept is hot at the moment. With network television skewed toward an older audience—the median viewing age of The West Wing is 54 years old—it's no wonder that execs green-light the tried and true. There's the rare exceptions, the series that defy trends and establish a niche in the market with their own concept. Lost is a prime example—where else do you find pseudo-supernatural thrillers with a storytelling concept based strongly on flashbacks? Or Desperate Housewives—there aren't many other primetime soap operas out there nowadays, and none that stake their picket fence so close to sitcom territory. Or outside ABC, there's 24—I've never gotten into it myself, but I have to respect the real-time concept and that they've been able to do so successfully for five seasons.
In 2005, a new series entered the arena: Prison Break. While it uses the serial, episodic concept of Lost or 24 (one episode roughly equals one day), and has the wide-ranging conspiracy of the latter, it brings the grittiness of incarceration to primetime in ways that other shows have not.
Facts of the Case
Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller, Underworld) was a highly paid structural engineer. The only dark mark on his perfect life was his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell, Equilibrium), a nice guy who made his living of shady means. When Lincoln was convicted of murdering the Vice President's brother and sentenced to death, Michael was all but ready to write off his brother…until Lincoln's lawyer and ex-girlfriend Veronica (Robin Tunney, The Craft) not only convinced Michael that Linc was innocent, but told him that his brother was responsible for more in his life than he imagined.
So, Michael did what anyone would do in that situation. He studied the blueprints for Fox River Penitentiary, learned all he could about the staff and inmates, and tattooed his research all over his torso. He then committed armed robbery and got himself locked up in Fox River.
There, he orchestrates an elaborate escape attempt to free his brother before his execution. Meanwhile on the outside, Veronica battles forces far larger than herself, going all the way to the Vice President (Patricia Wettig, Thirtysomething) and an enigmatic corporation.
The 22 episodes of Prison Break: Season One are:
I will admit, that's a very dodgy Facts section—very little description of the show, with every detail written in the past tense. That's on purpose. I don't want to insult your intelligence and try to pussy-foot around the inevitable "so, did they escape?" question. Yes, of course they escaped—it would be crazy to think that a television series called Prison Break wouldn't, you know, include a prison break. It would be even crazier to think that they'd stretch it on for years with Michael trying to dig out, Andy Dufresne style. This show isn't about prison life, with a subnote that they're trying to escape. This show is all about the escape.
I will admit, I'm not a big fan of the hour-long TV drama. I do watch Lost, but few other shows since, oh, The X Files have managed to reel me in and keep my attention (and even then, I gave up on that show around the fourth or fifth season). (I would include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I largely watched that on DVD or in syndication, and I don't count syndication as real TV viewing.) I don't like legal shows, or police shows, or medical shows, or…well, that pretty much covers everything. Despite the early negative buzz online, the promos for Prison Break got me hooked. Why? It looked unique. It promised something you don't normally see. And it delivered.
What was different about it? The biggest draw to me, beyond the engaging story, was the way in which it told that story. It seems like it would be claustrophobic—a prison isn't a very big place, and a cell less so—but the creators draw upon a wide pool of inmates and staff, plus the conspiracy outside the walls, to create a rich environment ripe with possibilities beyond the escape itself. While not strictly adhering to any sort of plot schedule like the real-time gimmick of 24, Prison Break doesn't have the neat, self-contained stories of your usual series. Yes, other series maintain continuity (Buffy) or use season-long story arcs (Veronica Mars), but few others cultivate it and keep the ball rolling as tightly as Prison Break. These aren't neat, self-contained stories; every action has ramifications that are felt as time passes. There's no reset button that magically erases physical and emotional wounds between episodes. The illusion is broken when you're watching over a nine-month period, with each episode interrupted every seven minutes by commercials, but when watching it continuously on DVD, it feels like you're watching a 22-part miniseries or a theatrical film that's been chopped into hour-long chunks. There are few dead spots as the show propels itself toward the inevitable escape in the season's final hours. With storytelling like that, how can you not get hooked?
Fox continues their tradition of serving justice to TV series with an excellent box set for Prison Break. However, they're also continuing a disappointing trend of shipping doctored versions of their discs to reviewers. While the review set I received was complete—it contained all the bonus materials, and there's no annoying watermarking—it is a DVD-R, with the attending reduced video quality. I've watched enough (ahem) copies to tell that there was an excellent transfer behind the copy, but you can still see the pixelation and reduced smoothness of the Xerox. Such a shame. So, while I am going to give the disc a passable mark in the Scales, consider that there's an asterisk next to it.
Prison Break: Season One is presented on six discs, housed in three dual-disc digipack cases. Video is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, which is a nice change considering that their non-HDTV broadcast is in 4:3 (curse my poor high-def reception!). Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, which does a nice job of bringing atmosphere, though it's not a particularly aggressive mix.
The bonus content line-up is impressive. The content specific to each episode includes:
"Riots, Drills and the Devil (Part 1)":
"Riots, Drills and the Devil (Part 2)":
"And Then There Were 7":
"Odd Man Out":
"End of the Tunnel":
The commentaries are both fun and informative, and are well worth your time. And two commentaries for some episodes? That's almost unheard of on TV box sets. The deleted scenes were justifiably cut; they seemed very uncharacteristic of the series and were cut for good reason.
Other less specific materials on Disc Six include:
• "Making of Prison Break": This 30-minute piece lets the creators (Paul Scheuring, Brett Ratner) and actors discuss their thoughts on the series and characters. Wentworth Miller gets quite a bit of time to discuss Michael Scofield, and you can tell that he shares his character's thoughtfulness and introspection.
• "If These Walls Could Speak: Profile of the Joliet Correctional Center": This nine-minute piece focuses on the real-life prison where they shot quite a bit of the season. It details its 150-year history, and is quite interesting. Unfortunately, they don't discuss any of the inmates who were housed there; in one of the episode commentaries, Paul Scheuring mentions that they shot scenes in John Wayne Gacy's cell.
• "Beyond the Ink": This is 16 minutes with Scheuring and Ratner, but most importantly, Tom Berg, the tattoo artist who helps the creators work up the intricate designs of Michael's body ink. Berg estimates that if you were to get the tattoo in real life, it would take about 200 hours and cost $15-20K. That's "ouch" in more ways than one.
• "Fox Movie Channel Presents: Making a Scene—Prison Break": Your standard eight-minute EPK-style media conglomerate cross-promotion piece. You'll learn more from every other piece in the set.
• Season Two Promo: A too-brief 30-second commercial for the second season. You've probably seen this on Fox already, except you've probably also seen every other commercial, including ones with actual footage from Season Two (like William Fichtner as an FBI agent—can't wait!).
• TV spots: Commercials that aired during the first season.
• Vanished Promo: More cross-promotion. This one's for a new show debuting after the season premiere of Prison Break. This one could go either way.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I studiously avoided spoilers above; I'm going to have to break that trend here. If you want to be pure, skip the Rebuttal.
Prison Break spent 13 of its 22 episodes developing the first escape attempt. This is where Michael pulled out all the cool details that went into the break-out; when it failed and the show went on hiatus for nearly four months, it was excruciating. But then when the show came back from break, it spun its wheels for a few episodes. It spends too much time agonizing over Lincoln's last-minute execution stay and details about his father (who is suddenly introduced into the conspiracy plot). Though "Brother's Keeper" is an excellent episode—indeed, necessary to understanding the characters—it doesn't bode well for the end of the season when they have to throw in a flashback episode to fill out the order. Fortunately, once they get that out of their system, the remaining six episodes are a non-stop pummeling until the season's over and the cons are on the lam.
There's no dearth of quality programming on right now, but Prison Break is one of the most consistently engaging and inventive shows on television. There's plenty of replay value in this set, and it's highly recommended.
Oh, and Peter Stormare f***ing rules.
Guilty? Innocent? Who cares…just watch!
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Scales of Justice
• Cast and crew commentaries on select episodes
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