November 18th, 2009
“There’s something thrilling about honesty.”
There’s a moment in the final hour of AMC’s remake of The Prisoner where I started to realize where its real problem lies. This is not to say that I haven’t been realizing the show’s problems from the word go, as the first five hours of the show were highly problematic, but when Ian McKellen’s 2 utters the above line I realized that this is where the intentions of the miniseries went awry.
There are problems with the thematic content of this miniseries, but the real problem is how the writer chose to structure this story in order to create a sense of mystery that was ultimately more vague than it was exciting. In the eyes of the writers, the climax of this story is when the story becomes clear to the audience, and the purpose of the rest of the miniseries is to effectively buy time and confuse us until we’re so desperate for clarity that when we receive it we give ourselves over to the truth. And, to some degree, the strategy worked: the final hour was, in fact, the best of this miniseries primarily because it was finally revealing and engaging with the larger thematic issues being discussed.
However, the problem with this strategy is that the cloudiness of the first four and a half hours of the miniseries not only made us hunger for thrills but also destroyed any sense of thematic consistency and, as a result, destroyed audience interest. While the theme presented at the end of the miniseries is actually compelling, it was so wholly absent for the first four hours (in particular) that it ends up depending entirely on the audience’s willingness to slog through an abstract and experimental four hours where the writer keeps adding new elements to the series when it’s in some way convenient for them as opposed to when it feels earned or natural.
While the miniseries eventually creates a compelling image of modern society, it’s an image that does little to make the first hour hours any better, and in some ways makes them even more irrelevant. It results in a miniseries that is the absolute worst sort of failure, where an intriguing idea and a couple of strong performances are executed in such a way to rob them of any potential to move their intended audience.
The miniseries is the story of Summakor, a company led by a man named Curtis who uses his wife’s biochemistry research on the unconscious to develop a simulated utopia of the mind wherein individuals could travel to an ideal society and become “fixed” for their present lives. The utopia, controlled by his wife’s mind, is run by Curtis’ own counterpart within the simulation of sorts, and is supplied with potential patients by the surveillance research completed by Michael, who after trying to resign from the company is thrown into the simulation himself. It is that moment, when Michael (now as 6) finds himself in the middle of the desert with no idea of how he got there, that begins this miniseries, and this is precisely the problem.
See, 6 isn’t actually interesting. Part of the blame lies on Jim Caviezel, who gives a lifeless performance when he’s asked to speak softly and an outright awkward one when he’s forced to raise his voice. However, much of the blame comes from the fact that the character has no life to him, lacking both a sense of humour and a thought that is in any way unrelated to the Village and his current predicament. The miniseries eventually has him perform a number of odd jobs, each more mundane than the next, and because the character has no nuances or subtleties it’s as if they were unable to get the real actor and instead used a stand-in so that they could film what was happening around them.
The script gives us no sense of why Michael/6 does anything he does other than when he blankly exposits it or, even more problematically, when another character (415, 313, or 2) spells it out for us. There are points in the miniseries where 6 will randomly pop up into a scene to interrogate 313, or question 1112, and I’m left wondering what drove him to make this speech. The answer is never clear, and the editing of the miniseries is such that things just move from one beat to the next without ever showing us how, or more importantly why, certain things are taking place in the way that they are.
Now, I understand the reluctance to reveal details of the plot up front: the show is trying to sell itself on mystery, so having 6 arrive confused and disoriented and to make the Village particularly amorphous and challenging makes perfect sense. However, if this is the case, we need to want to watch the show’s protagonist operate in this environment, and the miniseries fails to make the character the least bit compelling. It slowly parcels out any information that could possibly make his character interesting by turning it into a mystery of its own, the scenes with Lucy in New York designed to pique our interest in the plot rather than actually create interest in this character. I understand that 6 isn’t able to know everything about Michael’s life, or it would defeat the purpose of the entire exercise, but if we had been shown more of his past and given a better sense of his character we might have been able to better understand his character’s motives even if he isn’t quite sure what’s going on.
And I’m not even convinced that the plot should have remained a secret. If the purpose of the miniseries was to make us consider the types of themes that the finale of sorts brought to the surface, I don’t know why those themes couldn’t have been introduced first before then turning this into a character study of Michael, Curtis, Lucy, Sarah, and everyone else. I understand that mystery was a key element of the original series, but this theme didn’t feel as if it really needed mystery to work, and I probably would have found the episodes they delivered far more compelling if I understood what was going on. The story of a husband whose wife has become trapped inside her own mind, unable to enjoy the child she created in that mind that she could never have in real life, would have been just as compelling if we weren’t forced into the position of 1112, unaware of the whole story. By forcing us to know as much about the plot as its two most “out of the loop” characters, it creates mystery where it should be creating dramatic interest, and has bored us into submission by the time it decides it wants to be interesting.
A lot of this does have to do with the fact that the miniseries format seems to have been horribly misused in this instance, especially around the middle of the series. The freedom of a normal series structure is that you have time to investigate various different elements of a story, allowing more time for the viewer to become accustomed to an environment or to a set of characters. This can lead to a slower pace, certainly, but it can also really delve into the world the writers have created. This so-called utopia had a lot of elements taken for granted, such as the question of religion (which was present but non-denominational), or the question of governance, and as such there was a chance for them to slow down for a moment and allow 6 to stop rushing from one point to another and actually experience the world in a way that allows us, as an audience to understand it further.
What was so fascinating about this miniseries is that it actually at points started to do this, and yet refused to slow down in order to make it a successful strategy. It’s as if they decided that, instead of doing a full series, they would simply have a few episodes of a traditional series but refuse to have 6 actually slow down to experience any of it. It resulted in an absolutely bizarre pacing struggle, where 6 never stopped moving and yet what we was moving to was neither as exciting as one expects in a short-form miniseries nor as thorough as one expects in a more traditional series structure. Stories like 6 teaching at a school, or working as an undercover, or discovering a lost family, or being placed into an arranged marriage, were the types of stories that might have been interesting if there was ever a sense that they weren’t just a transitional piece of misdirection. And because of the miniseries structure, Michael never stopped to ask why any one particular event was happening, because that would have slowed things down too much and limited the impact of the big picture, which remained a broad question of “Why am I here?” that rarely changed as each episode passed.
It was only when things started to come together in the end that the miniseries started to be more successful, as the New York and the Village began to connect with one another in a legitimately intriguing way. By the time we got to “Checkmate,” I was confused less about what was going on (which I’d argue is counter productive) and more about what was going to happen (which, to me, is the perfect source of tension). When the two worlds collided through more than just a boring conversation between Michael and Lucy in his own memory, the show was finally telling us something about its key themes. Summakor went from some sort of faceless corporation to a clear part of our narrative, and 313 went from an undefined female love interest to a legitimately tragic character whose pain is now comprehensible (and present at all, really). When all of that happens, the story suddenly becomes really interesting, and I’m guessing that if you watched the finale first, the first five hours of the miniseries would probably be a whole lot more interesting – if honesty is so thrilling, why not open with it so that the boring introduction is the least bit compelling?
There were some interesting elements to be salvaged here. I thought Ian McKellen was great throughout, even if the character of 2 became problematically expository at various points within the narrative, and Curtis’ story is probably the most complete story provided to any of the characters (perhaps helped by the fact that it becomes clear the quickest). And I liked the idea that the leader was 2, as opposed to 1, because the idea of being whole (of being one soul) was unattainable to those who have essentially been split into two in order for them to improve their lives. And the idea of the Dreamers, people who aren’t as easily assimilated into this new utopia, working as a sort of resistance to the sense of order has some real potential to it. I think there’s a really intriguing miniseries to be told about that environment, one which could deal with the same themes that writer Bill Gallagher wants to deal with here, but this just wasn’t it in any way.
Some broad stories like this suffer from a weak ending, but I thought this one was compelling: Michael, who is responsible for this program starting as a result of his Big Brother-like observations within Summakor, is forced to choose between destroying the Utopia or attempting to take over and fix what Curtis was unable to sustain before him. In the end, he chooses the latter because of what he sees Sarah turning into, and when he sees that 147’s real life counterpart is closer to getting to see his daughter as a result of the process being undertaken, and he chooses to believe that helping people (even when they don’t ask for it, as is implied) is worthwhile. It may be a prison, but like any prison system it’s one that people believe can reform people, and that some believe can be changed to truly be a utopia of sorts. And so Michael sacrifices himself as Curtis once did, and 313 gives up her life in the village to serve as the new host, drugged into a state of unknowing.
But a satisfying ending doesn’t make the rest of the miniseries any more interesting, except from the perspective of analyzing the ending more carefully in the context of the rest of the story. However, while Daniel Fienberg has written an extensive analysis that makes the story seem really compelling, I wanted the show to be that compelling. If these kinds of ideas are so interesting, then why weren’t they present throughout the miniseries in a way that went beyond a scattered collection of disconnected and “weird” story beats? While Daniel’s right to point out that you could write extensive essays on the theme of the miniseries, you could also (heck, I sort of just did) write extensive essays about how poorly it organizes itself to actually capture those themes in an entertaining piece of television.
And while we do give points for intention, when the execution is this muddled and confused I can’t really suggest that any but the most morbidly curious seek out this miniseries for entertainment purposes. If this had been executed, it could have been another notch in AMC’s belt – as it turned out, it’s an intriguing oddity that’s more failure than success and more idea than execution.
- Jace over at Televisionary has an interview with the writer, Bill Gallagher, which reveals both that he “wrote small” for the miniseries (which makes about as much sense as it sounds) and that he never intended for the glass towers seen by the dreamers to in any way represent the World Trade Centre. The first I can sort of understand, even if it does explain a number of the show’s problems, but the latter baffles my mind: it’s one thing not to see the connections with really broad philosophical constructs (there’s some of Plato’s “The Cave” in here, as Jace points out), but it’s another to miss something so culturally relevant to the show’s New York setting.
- Considering that the actress who played 313 looked a bit like January Jones, there were a few times where I imagined the cast of Man Men (Jon Hamm, Jones, Elisabeth Moss, etc.) replacing the non-McKellen cast members, and I have to tell you that it became a far more interesting show as a result.
- That being said, I did think that the cast was solid other than Caviezel, especially Lennie James and young Jamie Campbell Bower (who is playing Weymar Royce in the Game of Thrones pilot for HBO).
- A legitimate question: I have to wonder if AMC always intended to air the miniseries over three nights. The episodes are clearly distinct from each other, which meant that they could have easily spread it out over six nights (Sunday-Friday) or over six weeks like a traditional series. I have to wonder if the quality of the opening episodes might have made this decision for them, or if they felt there was some other reason to air two hours a night during an extremely busy sweeps period.