Wednesday, November 18, 2009

TV Review: The Prisoner (2009)

As I said last week, I’m not sure I like the original The Prisoner, but it is compelling. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Patrick McGoohan demonstrated a good deal of genius in creating it. Not so the remake (our first 9/11 fable). Indeed, the remake of The Prisoner shows the danger of letting small minds try to recreate something genius. They tried to remake the Venus de Milo and ended up with a department store mannequin. Sad.

** spoiler alert **

Let’s get the reviewy stuff out of the way. The acting was good. The set was acceptable. The story moved along, but kept losing my interest. The director kept hinting at wanting to do interesting things, but then abandoned them so quickly that I honestly felt that he was more a coward than a hack. The story meandered and was not nearly as deep as they hoped it would be. Do I recommend it? Not really. Did I hate it? No, but I don’t respect it either.

Here’s the problem. They lost everything good about the original: its intensity, its sense of mystery, its thematic clarity, and its willingness to take risks.

Let’s start with risk taking. The primary reason the original stood out from the television crowd was its willingness to do strange things. As I said before, you had episodes that made no sense or that seemed to be from different shows, moments that the audience would not understand until an hour later, and critical information you were never told. Most interestingly, you were never let into either side’s mind, neither Number 2 nor Number 6, so you had to wait for the story to unfold before you could fully grasp what was going on and who was winning.

In the remake, what you see is what you get. This is very standard modern story telling. It is more akin to an X-Files episode than a Prisoner episode. If there is mystery, it is simply in that they haven’t revealed a motive, a method, or a key player yet. There is no deeper mystery here. And there is nothing that one would consider surreal. . . at least that hasn’t been explained as the chemical manipulation of Number 6’s mind. Yawn.

Let me take that back. There is nothing surreal until you get to the last twenty minutes of the final episode. But what happens then is little more than trickery. Intentionally created confusion masquerading as depth or meaning, with issues appearing out of the blue, tacked onto the story like a long, lost twin appearing in the final ten pages of a bad mystery novel. Indeed, most of what happens in the final twenty minutes has little to do with the prior three hours, and it seems mostly intended to inject an undeserved sense of mystery or surreality to hide the fact that the show really doesn't have a point or an interesting explanation for the village.

The intensity is gone too. And that’s my biggest beef. In the original, Number 6 was a man of action. He was a spy, a type A personality, who had been brought to the village to be broken. And true to his character, rather than merely accept being broken, he set about breaking the men (and women) who tried to break him. This made for a very intense show with sharp acting, sharp dialog, and a cat and mouse aspect that kept you on the edge of your seat. It was a chess game of the highest order.

In the remake, Number 6 is a loser. He’s the kind of guy who plays in a grunge band and whines about how hard it is to be him. He didn’t like his job, so he quit. He kind of wants to leave the village, but not enough to really try. He thinks everyone’s lying to him, but he doubts himself. He has done little to fight back. And unlike the original Number 6, who was alone and had to make his own chances, the new Number 6 seems content to let others take care of things for him. Yawn. . . oh, excuse me.

Even worse, they’ve made Number 2 bland. In the original, Number 2’s job was to break Number 6. It became an obsession for most of them. And when they failed, they would be severely punished, usually with execution. The new Number 2 doesn’t really want anything from Number 6. Indeed, Number 2, rather than being a manipulator par excellence with a mission, has been made into a petty tyrant who simply enjoys bossing people around and making them bend to his will. He has been remade into a combination Mad Hatter and Erich Honecker -- and indeed, the village is a fair approximation of East Germany.

In fact, we’re told that “Number 2” isn’t even an indication of a more sinister Number 1, but instead represents a title chosen from humility, to let everyone know that Number 2 could be Number 1 except that he is a humble man. Snore. . . oh, sorry, I must be tired.

Moreover, the focus of the show has shifted largely from Number 6 to Number 2. Rather than watching Number 2 struggle to escape (because he’s not), we are treated to the mysterious home life of Number 2 and his strangely drugged wife and closeted-homosexual son. They should have renamed this As The Village Turns.

Would it surprise you that Number 2 is misunderstood?

And that brings me to the weak and muddled message. The new Prisoner is the first 9/11 fable. The imagery is inescapable: two ephemeral glass towers that look like the World Trade Center towers, terrorism in New York, a seagull turning into a passenger plane, and then repeated talk about people giving up their freedoms and privacy in exchange for safety, read: Patriot Act. They even point to how governments use placebos (the passing out of hogs to prevent atmospheric disturbances) to make people feel that they are being protected. And the message. . . wait for it. . . is that we are giving up our freedoms and our privacy in exchange for these false promises of security, and it’s changing us. Yeah, ok, I agree. But that’s not earth shattering, yet the writer seems to think he’s the first to stumble upon this issue.

Further, the writer seems incapable of sticking with a single theme. In addition to the above, he delves into the family life of Number 2. He points out that people abuse power, and that no one (not even family) is safe from those with power. He worries about the nature of love. He makes points about the use of propaganda or manipulation of people through brainwashing or chemicals. What is real, what is imaged? How to deal with loss. Etc. He makes so many points (and discards them so quickly) that you begin to wonder if you aren’t watching his manifesto and if you shouldn’t slip some aluminum foil on your head during a commercial break.

In any event, the clarity of the original, despite its unanswered conundrum aspect, gave it strength. You knew what was at stake. The muddied shotgun style approach of the remake exposes its biggest weakness -- it talks a lot, but says nothing, and there’s no reason for us to care.

Finally, we come to the real bad guy: the modern day, generic, all purpose bad guy that lazy and untalented writers love to use. . . the faceless corporation. Corporations are the poor writer’s crutch. They are large and rich and involved in many activities (and apparently all have military divisions, right?), so there is no need to explain how they got their hands on henchmen, military weaponry, and super-secret technology and drugs unknown to man. But even better, they can be made out as evil without the writer ever having to point their finger at any person, ethnic group, race, religion or actual ideology. It’s the perfect bad guy for a writer who is unable to come up with a realistic bad guy. And that’s what we have here, a writer who wants to talk about society but doesn’t know how, so he made an evil corporation the bad guy and assigned them all of our sins. Pathetic.

The Prisoner is not a remake of The Prisoner, it is a weak X-Files movie. It treads no new ground. It has no real mysteries. It has little to say and is afraid to say what it does. And the ending. . . will not surprise you.


Writer X said...

Glad I wasn't the only one who was disappointed. Truthfully, I fell asleep midway through the show.

I thought that the remake opened up with some very good story questions that held my interest initially--what was the old man trying to tell him? How did he wind up in the desert? What was the connection with the girl in his memories. But, the intensity just wasn't there for me to care about halfway through.

I'm willing to give it a second shot and watch the next installment but unless the characters give me a reason to care, I'll probably trade my time for SEINFELD reruns. Or a book.

Very thorough review, Andrew! Thanks!

Unknown said...

Andrew: I missed the next-to-last episode, and didn't feel like it really mattered. Bummer. It had so much promise. I'll stick with the original.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, You're welcome.

As you can tell, I was very disappointed. Like you, I felt that the old man opened the show very well -- they created a real sense of mystery. But that didn't last very long, as they quickly forgot about him. Indeed, after his burial, they never mentioned him again on either the second or third nights. So we have no idea what he was talking about.

And the rest of the show went the same way. They constantly came up with ideas, but no sooner had they said, let's look at this, then they dropped those ideas and moved on.

I was very willing to take the show at face value, rather than comparing it to the original, but it just did nothing for me either as a remake or as an original work.

By the way, I take it you didn't see the second and third parts? If you are interested, the third/final part is on again today -- 6:00 pm EST, but I don't see the middle part on the schedule for today. They will probably repeat all three parts on the weekend.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I agree. Often, even if I'm not sure I like something like this, I try to give it a second chance just to see if there is something I missed. This time, I'm not interested in watching it again. Very disappointing.

Tennessee Jed said...

This sounds like a story that is played out far too often . . . trying to recapture something, and not measuring up. I did not watch the original run of the prisoner since I was in college and watched very little television (I had time only for sudying and women, of course, ha ha!)

When I did eventually catch up with the show, my reaction was not unlike yours. I liked the edgy, experimental nature of the show, but usually that can also be the downfall creatively. Like Twin Peaks or Lost, these shows become cult hits with the young and hip. They become "prisoners" (if you will) of their own edgy hipness and usually ending up almost being charicatures of themselves; too clever by a half. It is no wonder the new version is a disappointment.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That's a good point. Too often these shows end up becoming caricatures of themselves. In that regard, the original Prisoner got lucky that it only ran 17 episodes. If they had tried to add another season, I think it would have crossed that line and lost what made it so interesting.

The remake suffers from simply poor writing. They never nailed down what they wanted to say before they began. They didn't seem to have a consistent plan on how they wanted to treat their world, and they got distracted by side-issues that meant nothing.

I'm not saying they had to do only one thing, but what I am saying is that I don't think they really understood what they wanted when they made this. And I think in the end, they relied on "the big reveal" to give it meaning, but that doesn't work if you don't have the interesting story that makes people care about the reveal.

Joel Farnham said...


At the risk of being another Prisoner basher, I was bored. The mysteries of this version were not that interesting. I mean it had elements of the original, but this didn't get me interested in learning more. I saw the first episode, then half of the second. Then ten minutes of the third.

I always wondered what the great interest of the original, now ...... Hunh? I wish I could be more up about it, but I just can't.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I have to agree, I found it hard to remain interested. There just wasn't anything that really had me saying, "wow, I wonder what that's about."

Not to mention, when they did finally reach their explanations phase, each of the explanations turned out to be pretty generic or obvious.

Anonymous said...

I watched the whole thing and you're right about it. It was dull and predictable. I didn't see the original, but this doesn't make me want to either.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, I think it's probably worse if you've seen the original. But even if you haven't, you're right, it's just not a very good show.

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