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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Prisoner

Illustration for article titled The Prisoner
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There's a desert. A man wakes up in it. Another man has a grenade. "Be seeing you." He's scared. Someone orders a wrap, because that's all there is. Ian McKellen is interesting, and well dressed. "There is no New York, only the Village." Are those the Twin Towers? No. The desert is everywhere. A black man drives a cab. There are holes. Jim Caviezel is not interesting. A doctor likes him. A woman eats a wrap. She is being drugged. More holes. What is love? A giant white balloon. Murder. A huge anchor in the sand. "That's a bit philosophical. For a Thursday." Of course it all makes sense in the end. Or does it?

Extremely condensed as it is, reading the above paragraph can give you an experience roughly equivalent to watching AMC's The Prisoner in all its six episode glory. On the downside, no McKellen, who is, as always, interesting. On the plus side, even if it takes a couple tries to get through, that paragraph is significantly shorter than an actual viewing would be, and doesn't create a slow-burning resentment towards the creative forces involved in this mess. Sure, you may be annoyed with me for being pretentious or silly, but you'll get over it. Right now, the only thing keeping me from writing a very stern letter to my cable company is, well, this review. (It would've been very stern, mind you. Possibly even with curses.)

There's nothing inherently wrong with weird, or even weird for its own sake. Surrealist art can be exciting, innovative, inspirational; it can break us out of established patterns of expectation, it can re-shape our understanding of the world simply by not conforming to our ideas of what that world should be. But in a miniseries like this one, you need to bring a little more to the table than druggy-editing, ominous music, and randomness. The original Prisoner starred Patrick McGoohan as a government agent who resigns from his job, only to be kidnapped and brought to the Village, a sort of community jail for poor souls who knew too much. The show centered on McGoohan's efforts to escape from the Village, and the Village's attempts to break him into their way of thinking. Over the 17 episode run of the series, these disparate goals would adapt and evolve, but there was always a definite sense of urgency and stakes. There was a premise that held everything together.

AMC's Prisoner has a premise. Ish. But it sacrifices urgency for slack, repetitive confusion that's supposed to be haunting. Jim Caviezel plays the new 6, with no clear sense of who he is or was or where he came from. He resists Ian McKellen's 2, and 2's insistence that 6 assimilate into the local society. 2 runs his own Village, and in this place, everyone is convinced that it's the only place. 6's assertions that there's a world beyond the desert that surrounds them on all sides is met with confusion, hostility, and, occasionally, careful curiosity. It is accepted out of hand that 2 wants to break 6 and 6 wants to leave, but the goals of both men shift and change between scenes, as though the writers thought clarity would give away too much of the mystery. The end result is a question no one really cares to ask. Episodes (which have titles that reference the original show) nominally revolve around a central theme, but without any real notion of what's happening to anyone, these themes flirt briefly with relevance before dissipating into a suggestive but unengaging conclusion.

The new Prisoner has stronger continuity than the original, and a set of recurring characters—there's the 147 (Lennie James), a married man with a family who becomes connected to 6's battle, and 313 (Ruth Wilson), the doctor and potential love interest for 6 with her own worries. 2 even has a son in this version, 11-12 (Jamie Campbell Bower), who offers the chance for… Well. Something dramatic, one supposes. Each of these characters have sub-plots, along with 6's flashbacks to his "old" life, and while some of their stories have potential, that potential is unimportant because the world they exist in is never persistent enough for us to give a damn. They all seem to exist in isolation of each other, which is frustrating when you realize how much time they spend in one another's company, like a 4 hour party where no one dares make eye contact.

Caviezel is dull, no denying it. McGoohan's performance in the title role of the original series defined the show, focused it, but Caviezel here is just another bland hero, suffering a succession of obscure mishaps and baffling triumphs. It's not really surprising that the remake would change the first 6's very particularly individualism into a more generic, friendly version, but without any kind of center to the new show, it's hard not to notice how random and under-developed it is. McKellen is, as always, mesmerizing, and he does some terrific work in "Schizoid," the series' penultimate episode, but it's work in a vacuum; the rest of the cast is fine, but to what purpose?

Without spoiling anything—yes, the new Prisoner does arrive at a conclusion by the end, and it does make a kind of sense. But no conclusion could entirely justify the haphazard claptrap that precedes this one. It's fitfully interesting, intermittently compelling, but, on average, terribly dull. The people behind it clearly respect the original, but that respect doesn't make up for the dazed, meandering mess they've created. It looks nice, occasionally. That's about it.

Stray Observations:

  • It's remarkable how Rover, the white weather balloon that serves as a guard and monster in both series, was a lot more convincing in 1967-68.
  • The visual aesthetic of McKellen's Village looks like how I'd imagine Cuba would've looked in the fifties. Only with more white people.

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