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Fox jail drama a runaway hit

Observer Scene | Wednesday, September 13, 2006

“Prison Break” might have one of the most unbelievable storylines on television, but after moving past the improbable premise, this relatively new Fox television series is one of the best.

Starting with the premise of breaking out of prison is not necessarily the best idea for the longevity of a television series. At some point, it must come to an end – either with the escape or a long time in solitary confinement. However, “Prison Break” not only emerged as one of the best new shows on television during the 2005 network season, but showed that there are enough hooks to possibly demand future seasons of the show.

The show’s main plot revolves around two brothers – Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller, “Underworld”) and Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell, “Equilibrium”). Lincoln was accused of killing the brother of the Vice President of the United States and sentenced to death row in the Fox River Prison – set just outside of Chicago.

Michael, believing his brother’s claims of innocence, develops an elaborate and complicated plan to break his brother out of the Fox River Prison by robbing a bank with the intention of getting placed in the same prison as Lincoln.

Once Scofield is in Fox River Prison, he sets his plan in motion by following the blueprints and designs for escape he had tattooed over his body. An engineer, Scofield helped to create the original blueprints for the prison – among other things, the complete blueprint of the penitentiary is hidden within the elaborate creations tattooed on his body.

One of the best and most innovative elements of the show is the incorporation of the tattoos and the clues that they give to Scofield indicating the next step he needs to take in order to escape the prison with his brother.

Along the way, he runs into obstacles and must turn to other inmates for help. His cellmate, a good-natured Latino, Sucre (Amaury Nolasco, “2 Fast 2 Furious”) becomes an early confidante. He also comes up against mob boss, John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare), the racist and pedophiliac, Theodore “T-bag” Bagwell (Robert Knepper, “Good Night and Good Luck”) and ex-Army officer, Benjamin “C-Note” Franklin (Rockmond Dunbar, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”).

Another central character in Fox River is the prison doctor, Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies, “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”) who early on becomes interested in Scofield’s case and tries to determine why he ended up in prison. Sara eventually becomes an ally of the prisoners and aids in their escape plans.

In the outside world, aiding the brothers in their quest to shed the truth about Lincoln’s set-up is Veronica Donovan (Robin Tunney, “The Craft”), Lincoln’s old girlfriend, who is also an attorney for the City of Chicago.

During her investigations she begins to unravel a conspiracy involving the Vice President, Secret Service agents and other organizations all leading up to Lincoln being framed for the murder.

Veronica enlists the help of death-row champion Nick Savrinn (Frank Grillo, “The Sweetest Thing”) and together they gather evidence to support Lincoln’s case. Often with the two attorneys is Lincoln’s son LJ (Marshall Allman, “Hostage”), forced to go into hiding when wanted by police because he is suspected of the murder of his mother and step-father.

The show’s two main strengths lie in the pace of the action as well as the actors’ portrayals of their respective characters. The storyline of the show, although unbelievable on the surface, is in fact at its core very intelligent, complicated and well thought out.

“Prison Break” is anchored by tight, suspenseful writing – the plot moves very quickly, which keeps each episode fresh and exciting. Unfortunately, much like its counterparts, such as “Lost” or “24,” it is hard to keep up with the show if an episode is missed.

However, some of the complications in the plot sometimes serve as distractions more than anything else. One of the weaker elements of the show is the political intrigue, which tends to come in and out of the show at odd points, often detracting from the main focus of the prison escape itself.

Although these references to political conspiracies are interesting, they are not consistent enough within the show in terms of its importance to be enjoyable, except to the most hard-core fans.

Each of the actors does a superb job and, although most of the show’s characters are inmates, they generally develop a great deal of sympathy toward their respective plights. Miller and Purcell both deliver stand-out performances as the two brothers. Miller especially does an excellent job handling the always calculating and scheming Scofield.

The supporting cast also does an amazing job, with a solid combination of known and unknown actors. One cast member is worth noting – Peter Stormare as mob boss John Abruzzi. Stormare is well known for his roles on television as “Slippery Pete” in “Seinfeld,” in popular movies such as “Fargo” and “Armageddon” as well as starring in the recent line of exceedingly popular Volkswagen commercials.

Within the story, the supporting characters develop more and more as the series progresses with parts of episodes devoted to how each inmate wound up in Fox River as well as other information about their respective pasts. Each supporting character is very well developed, and the show definitely turns from focusing solely on the brothers to the whole group of prison inmates.