Review: AMC’s The Prisoner – I Know There’s An Answer (But Ask Better Questions)

Review: AMC’s The Prisoner

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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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17 Comments

Filed under The Prisoner (2009)

17 responses to “Review: AMC’s The Prisoner – I Know There’s An Answer (But Ask Better Questions)

  1. Well said. Between you and Dan Fienberg, I have a healthy respect for what this could have been.

    It makes me think of Hitchcock’s example of the “bomb under the table” idea, that you can show ten minutes of two men having the most boring lunchtime conversation ever and BOOM, their table blows up. That’s a cheap thrill at the end of ten boring minutes. Or you could show the bomb under the table, then continue the exact same scene, boring conversation and all, except now it’s fraught with tension as you wait for the bomb to go off. The sixth episode is the bomb, at least in this example if not in modern lingo.

    If they had wanted to reimagine the Prisoner so radically, then why keep to essentially the same setup and introduction? Part of the reason I think the original worked so well was because the first audience had a context for McGoohan–that of secret agent John Drake–and whether or not his Number Six was the same person, the show traded off that familiarity. There was never a sense of Six/Michael’s life before we met him, no kind of context, so we’re already handicapped in the first five minutes.

    They could also have played more with the idea that there was nothing outside of the Village instead of merely repeating it over and over. Maybe if Six had pointed out more strongly that repeating something doesn’t make it so…

    Thematically, it’s a noble failure. But the ideas are worthy and could perhaps be better explored in a wholly original project. Dramatically, I found it a complete failure, despite good work from the majority of the cast. I shouldn’t find the interstitial “Coming Up on the Prisoner!” teases to be more dramatically satisfying than the show itself.

  2. Oh, and yes, I suspect you’re correct about the scheduling. The closer it came to the airdate, the quieter the promotions have seemed, unless you were actually watching AMC. At least to my ears, even before the critics started weighing in, the advance buzz had gotten very quiet.

  3. Paddy Fitz

    Who is #1. well,it sure isn’t the creators of this convoluted, trite ripoff of The Prisoner. The writers
    obviously missed the whole point the original series.
    I realize that it is hard to follow in the Footsteps of genious. That is why Patrick McGoohan’s series
    is now a Classic and this peice dreck will eventually
    whither and drift off into obscurity.

    I ask AMC the same question that #6 asked “The
    General” which caused it’s demise. “WHY”

  4. Bob

    Great analysis. I watched this in one sitting (sleepless night), fell asleep in the middle, saw the ending, and went back to catch up. As you indicate, knowing what was happening made the story much better.

    I would have loved more exposition on the details — how the prisoners interacted with their real world selves, how The Village was constructed and its relationship to the mind of “The Dreamer” (like the wraps). A big logical hole in the ending was the nightmarish world 313 would have created if The Village reflects elements of her life/personality…

  5. Joan

    It was poorly written, poorly directed, poorly edited, poorly cast ( particularly the awful, Shakespearian-acting-style kid — what was 2 doing raising a kid in the village ? ), had no fun in it whatsoever ( unlike the original ), & had a pacing as slow as molasses.

  6. Joan

    I quickly re-read your column. Apropos of your question whether ‘ AMC always intended to air the miniseries over three nights ‘ , I think not, as the episodic nature of the episodes would imply, but, when they got to see the dailies, or rushes, they panicked, as they knew a lot of people would not sit through 6 nights, let alone 6 weeks, of this. ( Frankly, were I not a fan of the original, 1968 Mc Goohan masterpiece, I’d not have ploughed through this ‘ stuff ‘. )

    The final hour did not move me & did not surprise me. I had guessed it from the beginning — they had dug themselves into far too many plot-holes, so make it a dream. –Joan

  7. James

    I had a very bad feeling as the series progressed…. one that dreaded the probable conclusion (that was verified, unfortunately….) that the screenplay writers were either unskilled, or the editing destroyed fundamental footage that would have “knit” the whole series together.

    The end is a bit of a “fix up” solution to suddenly create sense out of the aimless themes and ill-constructed plotline that wandered aimlessly for more than 5 hours in the series.

    Too bad…. they could have actually made a “worthwhile” production with the underlying plot idea.

    But, ultimately, they severely blew it.

    A total waste of 6 hours that we will never get back.

    AMC is obviously running on “borrowed time”… it will be interesting to see if their next offering “redeems” them, or simply confirms they’ve entered the arena of “average, generic t.v. offerings”.

  8. Pingback: FOE4 Musings: AMC’s The Prisoner and Transmedia Participation « Cultural Learnings

  9. Tom Siebert

    Really solid and smart piece of criticism, the best I’ve read so far, about this soul-crushingly disappointing re-imagining of one of my favorite TV shows of all time. I echo the earlier poster; the only reason I stuck through to the end was out of some twisted sense of devotion to the original.

    I’ll make a couple points of my own, just to move the conversation along. Disagree that the finale was the best episode, because by then I didn’t even care what happened to any of the characters and there was so much expository explanation about what was really going on that it became exhausting. Plus that last scene with Michael and the lobotomized 313 was a completely unbelievable 180-degree character turn, not to mention a masters class in wooden acting (capping Caviezel’s enervating, hopefully career-killing performance ).

    Honestly, I thought the opener, “Arrival,” was by far the best, because it could afford to be obtuse and mysterious as set-up for what was to come, plus there was the cameo by “Number 93” at the beginning and the visit to his home, which was obviously another nod to the original. And I have to admit I got chills the first time I saw the opening sequence, with Michael’s spray-painted “RESIGN” on the glass window.

    That said, the last ten minutes of “Arrival” take a sharp turn south as the miniseries starts to kick into gear (or tries to, at least), by throwing two handfuls of “TV ACTION SERIES” at us — Big Explosion, Dying Revelation, “I am not a number, I am a free man!”, Rover. Cliffhanger. Commercial.

    After that, it was all downhill , and I began to vaguely get the sense that this version of the “The Prisoner” was made by stupid people trying to fool us into thinking they were creating something smart through cheap tricks like jumping around in time and leaving out important pieces of information.

    I suppose it’s a waste of energy to complain about plot points that don’t make any sense except through the spectrum of common television narrative devices, but it still pissed me off when the guy in episode two who pretended to be 6’s brother put him through the ringer in order to convince him, then the moment he finally believes, confesses it’s all a lie. Or that 6 really thinks he can sneak around The Village and climb up on somebody’s roof without being noticed. Or how 11-12 can possibly believe he’s successfully carrying on a clandestine homosexual affair with his own bodyguard. Or that the giant pits that continually….oh never mind.

    I could go on and on, but won’t but for one more point. While I would agree that Ian McKellen was the best thing about this rancid remake, I would also argue that elevating 2 to the equal of 6 in the story is a critical error, one that is only amplified by the actors’ performances, where McKellen simply blows Caviezel off the tube.

    Really, in the end, since 2’s story arc closes happily while 6’s continues, you’ve even got to wonder who’s story this is. And if, in the end, the central and most interesting character in the remake of “The Prisoner” is the jailer, not the prisoner, then the entire project itself has been turned on its head by people who should not have been entrusted with the project to begin with.

    And really, that’s what this finally comes down to. After all the fits and starts and failures to remake “The Prisoner,” the people who finally got the green light were people who didn’t even understand what they were doing. Considering I’ve been waiting about 20 years for a remake to finally get made, I’d like to give a hearty “F#ck you,” to everybody involved for doing such a hapless job.

  10. The whole thing was a dream? Sheesh….. Some of the cult prisoner fans have long made that interpretation of the original show. I always felt that was such a lazy interpretation, side-stepping the need to make real choices, accept real responsibility and the importance for the individual to resist conformity whilst finding a way to still remain sane in this crazy real world of ours, and have the real will to live a real life of ones own.

  11. viewer viewing

    The commercials were good. The PalmPre girl. The Geico gecko. I don’t know what that other stuff was all about. Something about a man running round aimlessly.

  12. Diana

    I am appalled that so much brainpower and thought would go into analyzing and disecting this series. The bottom line was the whole thing was a dreadful waste of time. Any attempt at a deep “meaningful philosophy” is lost on this crap series.

  13. David

    I watched only 15 or 20 minutes. I don’t normally have cable so I caught it at a friend’s house by accident. Once I realized the series had already aired, I found online reviews, including this page, that persuaded me that the show was going to keep being as bad as it seemed, and as oblivious to the themes and style of the original. Sorry everybody else had to suffer through the whole thing so that I might be spared, but that’s the way the Rover bounces sometimes.

  14. Mark J. Zappa

    C-R-A-P!

    I never got my hopes up with this farce of a re-make. The only thing that almost did was the casting of Jim Caviezel.

    I quote Tom above: “soul-crushingly disappointing”

    But now look, whomever says that Caviezel did a bad job portraying no. 6 is not thinking before opening their mouth. Did he not do as good a job as he could have, given that total CRAP of a script and story line by that Bill Gallagher genius? He was given too many dumb lines. Where Patrick Mcgoohan had the great ability to carry the original series with his dry humor and sardonic wit (Clint Eastwood also comes to mind), not to mention TRUE genius writing and directing skills. But what was given Caviezel, did not make that nearly as possible for him to do. Give him a deserved break huh! I could picture the original no. 6 falling for the old buried childhood momentos in the sand ploy, and having that give him doubts..lol! And standing in front of the Green Dome screaming his head off that he was going to destroy no. 2 …..sitting inside eating some f*#^ing fruit cake (well at least that was quite fitting, given the casting of the actor who played no.2). Can you imagine Mcgoohan doing that? Or being so CONFORMING and going along with the “brother” lies…..or the going “back” to his bus driving job? Let me guess. It was all part of 6’s plan right? lol suurrrre it was.

    CRAP!

    This farce of a re-make was also way too condensed, but thank God for that, with it being so moronic. And also that it was spread out over only 3 days instead of 6. It was over sooner. I can envision the poor loser who got the job of having to try to properly edit it. Impossible. However the torture in watching all of this farce was still bad enough, especially for a true Prisoner fan like myself.

    Wow there Billy, a no.2 with family troubles, a homo no. 2’s son, in “love” with a homo no.2’s bodyguard….and let alone giving THAT precedence over 6’s story!???….HAHAHAHAHAHA!!

    Of courrrse….HAD to put that in there right??
    ~Never underestimate the tenacity of a reprobate mind. Nor the tenacity of it’s perversions, either.

    And Patrick Mcgoohan is also laughing. As well as every other TRUE fan of the original masterpiece.

    The original was the greatest television series of all time. But seeing this typical garbage of a re-make, even if it took til’ 2009……..did not surprise me one bit.

    And ALSO from me, a true fan of “The Prisoner”, to everyone involved in the writing and production of this atomically lame, joke of a counterfeit………….
    FU#k YOU!!….from the bottom of my burning heart.

    Cheers,
    🙂

  15. Luciano

    I think that this mini-series was halfway done: It tried to be experimental and avant-garde, but at the same time, it was written on the premise of a traditional-linear mistery plot.
    I also believe that it failed to create the atmosphere. There was a need for more takes showing the Village to create a climate of opression.

  16. better buick then you

    as usuall a mark j zappa make stupid comment like he does in real life what a useless peron get a job mark instead of sitting on your 2 inch dick

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