I would like to start this review with a moment of collective honesty.
Prison Break, the Fox drama which premiered in 2005, probably should have only lasted one season. The first season of the testosterone-fueled soap opera found Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), his body tattooed with the blueprints of Fox River Penitentiary, breaking his wrongly convicted brother, Lincoln (Dominic Purcell), out of jail. The show was preposterous, over-the-top, come-with-your-willing-suspension-of-disbelief-firmly-intact fun. Was it a good show? I’m not sure I can make that argument. But it was, for that ridiculously amusing first season, a highly entertaining one.
The later seasons grew in outrageousness and the show wasn’t nearly as engaging. Fox seems to know this, too: The “previously on Prison Break” montage that kicks off this nine-episode revival shows the beginning and the end of the series and blissfully skips over the drudgery of the middle seasons. Picking up seven years after the series ended in 2009, Lincoln has once again fallen in with the wrong crowd and Michael’s wife, Sara (Sarah Wayne Callies), is raising their son, Mike, with her new husband, Jacob (Mark Feuerstein, perfectly cast as the aw-shucks nice guy). When the series ended, Michael was dead—or so we thought. But in true soap opera fashion, death is only a temporary state. To paraphrase Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Michael’s not quite dead yet, he’s feeling much better.
Michael’s old frenemy, T-Bag (Robert Knepper), is out of prison, with a clue that Michael is still alive. He pays an unwelcome visit to Lincoln, who contacts Sara and their old pals Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) and C-Note (Rockmond Dunbar). Suddenly, the (chain) gang is at it again.
But the world and TV has changed a lot since Prison Break first premiered. For one thing, we’re much savvier viewers. I won’t spoil it here, but my guess is that, like me, you’ll be able to figure out the big bad right from the jump.
It’s also a good idea for shows to know their limitations. This revival takes Lincoln and C-Note to Yemen, where the drama clunkily tries to discuss the civil unrest there. A show as loosely rooted in reality as Prison Break probably shouldn’t be attempting a nuanced portrayal of a war-torn Middle Eastern country. (The revival was filmed in Vancouver and Morocco, and the Yemen sets couldn’t look more fake.)
The dialogue remains equally preposterous. Michael was always a character who liked to talk in riddles. And the ensuing years haven’t made him any less enigmatic. “Just like the butterfly’s wings, this piece of gum is going to start a sequence of events that will finish on the other side of the world,” he melodramatically tells his new prison sidekick, Whip (Augustus Prew). Okay, Michael, that doesn’t even make sense. Please hold while I pause for a massive eye role. With the cheesy sets, corny dialogue and unnecessary slow-motion effects, Prison Break pulls off the trick of being so bad it’s almost good TV.
But there are some highlights. Knepper’s role as the nefarious, one-handed T-Bag was a breakout one for the actor. As good as he’s been since in projects as varied as Heroes and Mob City, Knepper has never quite replicated his inspired Prison Break performance. It’s great to watch T-Bag be T-Bag again. “Of all the things that mystify me since I’ve been released, it’s that kale is the rage,” he tells FBI Agent Paul Kellerman (Paul Adelstein, another actor great to have back in his breakout role) in his singsong Southern accent. “Kale.”
Sara soon learns that Michael, who sports brand-new tattoos, is now going by the name of known terrorist Kaniel Otis. “Whatever name you want to call him, Michael is a murderer, Sara,” Kellerman tells her. Why would Michael fake his death and abandon his family? Her economist husband enlightens her about game theory, in which everyone is a contingency. “It becomes about winning rather than if the game should be won at all,” he tells her.
The characters all make moves that defy logic. Sara sends her son to school after an unknown intruder has invaded her house and tried to kill them. T-Bag suddenly gets a Six Million Dollar Man-inspired robotic hand in a surgery that appears to take zero recovery time. Lincoln finds time for a possible romance, because what’s more romantic than being stranded in a war-torn country?
But I’ll say this, at the end of four episodes available for review, as cheesy and as flawed as the series is, I still want to know how it all ends. As Fox skipped over the middle seasons in introducing the revival, I may just tune in for the ninth and final episode.
Prison Break joins The X-Files, Gilmore Girls and the upcoming Twin Peaks as the nostalgic revivals trying to recapture the glory days. But there’s a reason the phrase “You can’t go home again” amounts to a cliché. You really can’t. Especially when home is a prison.
Prison Break premieres Tuesday, April 4 at 9 p.m. on Fox.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .