Review: Prison Break, Season 1

America is a giant prison, and the bars are made of television screens. Maybe not, but fortress America has an incarceration problem - large numbers of its young populations are in prison.

The rest just watch those that are. Prison Break (which appeared in the USA on politically-conservative Fox) is one of the best contemporary television programs, and, at times, achieves a pop culture giddiness that one only gets when in the presence of entertainment genius. Eyewear gives it four out of five specs.

Fusing various elements (and cliches) from the original Mission: Impossible series, with The Great Escape, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, The Birdman of Alcatraz, X-Files, and even Robin Hood, its series arc follows the semi-mythic TV paths of the mysterious, resourceful stranger who comes into a community (Shane) to redeem a lost world.

No world could be more lost (other than Lost's) or self-contained than a prison's - and no stranger-hero could be more thrilling than Wentworth Miller (pictured) - the small screen version of Barak Obama (photogenic, racially complex, and hyper intelligent). Miller's character - in a skin-trope doubled from the great Memento - enters a maximum security prison to rescue his death row brother with the entire blueprints for the prison house tattooed (and allegorically disguised with visual and verbal codes) on his body (he was the man who retro-fitted the enclosed structure).

Maximum security meets maximum planning - as Miller's beautiful, glib, masterful man, Michael Scofield, manages to slowly, surely, unravel his complex - preposterously complex and artful for that reason - escape plan. As a structural engineer, he's good with a system, and has visualised this one down to its last screw. What he hasn't counted on are the polymorphously perverse needs of, and dangers posed by, the other inmates he must also collaborate with.

Prison Break is - among other things - a hymn to the greatness of the American can-do capitalist system and rugged individualism, with a Depression-era FDR slant (sometimes we have to sacrifice a little elbow grease for our brothers). It's also a not-so veiled commentary on Guantanamo Bay, 9/11 and the surveillance society Bush has built (and later episodes even feature Iraq-based US-led torture as a surprise character backstory element).

After all, the main villain is the Vice President, and the shadowy forces of evil are CIA-style men in suits. More importantly, the key struggle in the series (between all the characters) is how to ethically deploy force and use power. The haunted, decent Warden (slowly building a miniature Taj Mahal for his wife, symbol of a love embedded in a built environment) is mirrored by the thoroughly sadistic, corrupt, freedom fries-chomping two-faced Captain Bellick, who plans his overthrow.

Michael must learn to work with thieves, mafia killers, and, most disturbingly, a cornpone child-killer. Meanwhile the Governor and his do-good medico daughter represent two ways of thinking about the justice system - throw-away the key, or rehabilitation. There are also strong Christian overtones (the two brothers who face death to save each other, versus, for instance, the two government killers who abandon their fallen "brother" in a deserted well).

Stacy Keach as Warden Pope is wonderful, although the two stand-out, bravura performances belong to character actors given the roles of their lives - Peter Stormare (originally of Fargo fame) as organized crime boss (with a tortured soul) John Abruzzi, and Robbert Knepper as T-Bag. Knepper inhabits the Southern sex killer in the white T-shirt, with two pockets for two prison-friends to clutch amorously, with the filthy lilting panache of Hopkins in Lambs, swaggering towards Babylon to be damned. The strength of the series, in general, is that it manages to generate a great deal of interest in, and sympathy for, characters who would normally be merely baddies, mainly by the gothic grandiosity of the writing.

There are a few problems with the series - the main one being the "outside" conspiracy theory plotline is much more far-fetched and less rigorously plotted than the gripping "inside" story. There's also the little matter of the Internet connection in the isolated deep-forest cabin without any phone lines. Also, two late-season twists, the amputation of T-bag's hand (too-reminiscent of Lecter's similar experience in Scott's Hannibal), and the intentional overdose of a beloved character, seem cliffhangers too far.

The last words of Season 1: "we run" - turning a closed-system exercise in nail-biting claustrophobia into a wide-open The Fugitive homage (with "big W" elements of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) - do not augur all that well. Still, I aim to view the sophomore season soon. And, Season 1 of the original The Fugitive series is out on DVD this August 14...