The story goes that Fox originally didn’t want to green-light Prison Break because—paraphrasing here—what the hell do you do after the escape? It was, most would agree, diminishing returns after the dramatic season-one finish, in which brothers Michael Scofield and Lincoln Burrows breathlessly (and finally!) escaped confinement. Subsequent seasons got sillier, with the guys on the run, then eventually, A-Team-like, working for The Man as secret agents, or something like that. Michael Rapaport was involved for what was supposed to be the final season, and he jumped into a dumb plot, dumber twists (the brothers’ long-lost mother was alive and working for the bad guys?), and a scrambled ending that aired as a standalone movie. (Sort of. It’s ridiculously convoluted.)
But one thing was for sure: Michael Scofield, the main character played by Wentworth Miller, was dead. Okay, so he died offscreen, dramatically using himself as an electrical conduit in order to break his wife, played by Sarah Wayne Callies of The Walking Dead, out of prison. (She also murdered his mom. Man, this show got dumb.) We saw her, along with Michael’s brother, visit his grave, and they also watched an “if you’re seeing this, it means I’m dead” video message that he left. It all felt pretty final, until the actors didn’t have a ton of success beyond Prison Break, at which point somebody had the bright idea that Michael didn’t die after all, and that ratings for his Lazarus-like rise might be good enough to make it possible. (Ratings are the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in them, though they were dead, yet shall their television program live.)
Season five, which will run just nine episodes, doesn’t waste any time in getting to the action, and certainly doesn’t bother raising the level of its own intelligence: Seven years after his supposed death, Michael, naturally, is alive, which we learn via former (and perhaps future) villain T-Bag Bagwell. This fact sets off a ridiculous chain of events that involves a robotic prosthetic arm, a platinum-blond assassin, a bunch of battles with ISIS fighters, and—naturally, inevitably—a prison break.
Michael is apparently playing a long game in Yemen, where he’s once again behind bars and once again covered with tattoos that will somehow guide his escape. When his long-simmering plan—which involves an ISIS leader, not making this up—goes slightly awry, he activates plan B, which is comfortingly convoluted, in keeping with the show’s history.
The first two episodes of this season are almost painfully silly, to the point of being subliterate—the fine line that Prison Break always walked. Many characters from the show’s history make themselves known quickly: Callies is remarried to a much less exciting man, and they’re raising Michael Jr. in upstate New York. Rockmond Dunbar’s badass is now a peaceful Muslim, which is helpful when the action moves to Yemen. And Michael’s old FBI nemesis is somehow involved. There’s comfort in their presence, along with that of Robert Knepper, who plays the morally slippery T-Bag, owner of the aforementioned prosthetic. (His robot arm is quickly covered with a glove, presumably to save on the special-effects budget.)
Subsequent episodes find a better balance between absurdly over the top and standard action—either that or the first two just had an inuring effect. Dominic Purcell, as Lincoln Burrows, plays Big Dumb Brother to its fantastic hilt, curling up with rage when his brother seems to not recognize him, then later leading a brutish charge to save him from certain death. Certain death knocks at the door nearly every episode of Prison Break.
More than a new installment of Prison Break, this season feels a bit like Homeland For Dummies, with the political intrigue and intelligence-community backstabbing brought down to a grade-school level. It turns out that some kind of black-ops guy is behind Michael’s imprisonment, and a cat-and-mouse game is surely afoot for the next five episodes. This truncated season will almost certainly serve Prison Break well: Stretching things to 20-plus episodes didn’t fly even in the seasons that didn’t suffer from under-writing and over-insanity. (There are still some entertainingly MacGyver-like moments, with Michael’s Rube Goldberg-like plans put into motion.)
But despite ingredients that probably sound hackneyed and unoriginal, Prison Break eventually does find a little spark in season five. There’s something undeniably exciting about the idea of escaping from confinement, the more complex and dangerous the task the better. Everything else that happens is sort of incidental: It’s easy to gloss over when things get really really dumb, but fun to engage when the show is pumping adrenaline. This season feels just overstuffed enough to be entertaining. Make no mistake, it’s nothing more than entertaining, and sometimes it’s less, but there’s something to be said for its mindless fun. For now, anyway; let’s hope it doesn’t get a big head and go for too many more seasons. If they bring Michael Rapaport’s character back—last we saw him he was essentially brain-dead, in an assisted-living facility—it may finally be time to lock up Prison Break for good.