When Prison Break’s first season hit our TV screens back in 2005, it was truly great television. It followed Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), framed and wrongfully convicted for assassinating the Vice President’s brother. To save him, Lincoln’s own brother, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), hatched an elaborate escape plan, getting himself incarcerated in the same prison and forging alliances with criminals in order to break his brother out. The first season was anchored by tight, suspenseful writing, clearly relished by the then largely little-known cast. Standouts included Robert Knepper as the murderer/paedophile T-Bag, who managed to make his despicable character likeable. Peter Stormare turned in a deliciously menacing performance as mob boss John Abruzzi, while Amaury Nolasco’s winsome Fernando Sucre, who shared a cell with Miller’s Scofield, was a charming sidekick. The show’s mind-bendingly intricate plot and terrific individual performances provided a staggering narrative but the first season was most brilliant in the moments when people made others suffer, attempting to cope with the burden of their own suffering in the process. The show’s excellence saw Season One attract 9.2 million US viewers every week, eading to a pick-up for a second season the following year, continuing the story after the inmates made their escape.
The ratings achieved in its first season were surpassed by its second. It should have been difficult for a show with a clear premise that fitted neatly into one season to provide enough material for a second, but it coped well. The fascinating, twisted bunch of characters we got to know, love and hate throughout the show’s first season were enough to bring viewers back. And in many ways, the second series of Prison Break evolved into a logical extension of the first. With Michael and Lincoln now on the run, the focus switched to keeping them out of prison rather than trying to break into it. Once the simmering relationships between the escapees themselves and the feeling of distrust that underpinned them were added to the mix, the second season of Prison Break fell neatly into place. However, despite its ability to hold on to viewers, it lost some of its magic. The appeal of the first season lay in the immense intrigue it created – where the show followed a narrative full of captivating strategic plots like those from The Great Escape and Ocean’s Eleven, the second season failed to retain the formula. It fell into the trap of forgetting what made it so brilliant and diverted irritatingly towards a conspiracy theory. The second half of the season felt more like 24, disappointing in view of what the first series had achieved. However, this is not to say it was not enjoyable. The viewers still cared about the fate of the escapees and so, when The ‘Company’ (the ominous organisation behind the conspiracy), attempted to track down and kill Scofield, Burroughs, et al, there was an overwhelming desire to see the men escape and the ‘Company’ exposed. The season, however, annoyingly concluded with the apprehension of the fugitives and their incarceration in a Panamanian jail.
Season Three was only twelve episodes long, suffering from last year’s writer’s strike, and, to sum it up with brutal honesty, just a poor copy of season one. The writers returned to the original premise, setting the third series in Sona Prison, Panama. However, what was fresh and tight became a warmed-over pastiche. Although the setting was delightfully brutal, the new characters diverse and lovably villainous, the plot felt awkward. The ‘obstacles’ were arbitrary, the changes in allegiance served only the narrative and not the internal worlds of the characters, and the over-arching ‘Company’ plot was so confused and confusing that it became meaningless. Watchable for the sake of completeness alone, it failed to serve the main purpose of the entire show; to expose the ‘Company’. The characters’ escape at the end of the season, while inevitable, left us with little interest in the future plot.
Season Four sees the escapees broker a deal with the Department of Home Security – they can stay out of jail if they help to bring the ‘Company’ down. Episodes one to twelve of the fourth series are terrific. They have everything that has made the series so brilliant. The ‘Company’ break-in provides the overarching narrative, but it is wonderfully padded out with themes of revenge and betrayal. The series goes off course, though, after the twelfth episode, when the protagonists are double-crossed. This narrative arc would have been perfect for an entire series, but unfortunately the writers felt the need to rush through it. The following four episodes irritatingly seem to lead nowhere. Ratings for Season Four haven’t been strong (six million per episode) and on the 16th of January Fox network made the decision to cancel the show. This was disappointing news. Although Season Three was distinctly under par, in Season Four the show rediscovered itself. Hopefully, when the remaining episodes air (from 17th April) the show will go back to basics and the viewers will get their remaining questions answered. What exactly is the ‘Company’? Why did they frame Lincoln? Will Michael and Lincoln live happily ever after? We’ll have to wait and see.