TV Review: AMC's 'The Prisoner'
Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel's miniseries makes an admirable attempt to escape Patrick McGoohan's shadow
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Sure. Like many critics and TV aficionados, I'm a "Prisoner" snob.
I own Patrick McGoohan's 17-episode classic on video (not all that useful currently) and on DVD (already outmoded, with a spiffy new Blu-Ray set on shelves). In grad school, I wrote at least two lengthy papers that used "The Prisoner" as a primary text, including one comparing the show to "Gilligan's Island" as a study in 1960s displacement narratives as seen through British and American cultural prisms. Let me add that I'm a pretentious "Prisoner" snob.
So I know as well as anybody that AMC's six-episode miniseries reinterpretation of "The Prisoner" isn't *that* "Prisoner." It lacks the elegance and literacy of McGoohan's creation, as well as its trippy delirium and flair. In fact, as free-flowing reinterpretations of "The Prisoner" go, "Cape Wrath," a Channel 4 creation that aired on Showtime as "Meadowlands," may have been a more faithful (if uncredited and unintended) adaptation.
My biggest concern about the new "Prisoner" was that it was might be made without any particular impetus, the sort of pointless remake-for-remakes-sake reboot that already gluts the primetime landscape (think "Eastwick" or "Melrose Place" or even, if the second episode is any indication, "V").
But here's the thing that surprised me: AMC's "The Prisoner," written by Bill Gallagher and directed by Nick Hurran, has its own agenda. While it aims for a similar sense of disorientation and alienation and while it shares a few character names and locations with McGoohan's "Prisoner," it isn't trying to be a carbon copy. This new "Prisoner" is not lacking for a purpose, a theme and a very specific and contemporary message, though you may need to make it to the very end to see how the pieces tie into that thesis.
Despite four decades of TV creators ripping off the original, the new "Prisoner" is not, actually, superfluous. Over the course of six hours, I was pleased by how effectively it strung me along and by how much it gave me to chew over by its conclusion.
The faster you leave behind your residual baggage from the original and concentrate on the things that *this* "Prisoner" is doing, the more likely you will be to enjoy the satisfying sense of bafflement it generates.
[Full recap, some minor spoilers included, after the break...]
AMC's "The Prisoner" begins with a man (Jim Caviezel) waking up in the desert, "Lost"-style, starting on a close-up of his opening, disoriented eyes. Where is he? How did he get there? It turns out that he's on the outskirts of The Village, an unusual oasis plunked amidst the dunes, a collection of A-frame houses and Colonial architecture. In The Village, people happily go about their business, going to work, school and dining at restaurants which, amusingly, serve exclusively wraps. The Village is watched over by 2, the well-dressed personification of a sort of British paternalism that you might have thought went out of fashion 50 years ago. He tells our hero that he's 6 and that The Village is all there is.
And then, for the rest of the series, 6 attempts to prove that there's a world outside The Village -- he's having flashbacks to events in New York City and a mysterious woman played by Hayley Atwell -- while 2 attempts to get some secret out of 2, while mostly attempting to get him to capitulate to the whims of The Village.
In the original, of course, there was a revolving door of 2s, a reflection of the insidious fungibility of power. In the new version, only Sir Ian. He isn't the only 2 there's ever been. He's just the current 2. There's a reason for that. It can't be explained without unravelling the entire "Prisoner" tapestry. But there is a reason.
[INTERLUDE: Several people have asked me on Twitter and elsewhere if they need to watch the original before watching the AMC version. My answer: Well, yes, because the original is awesome. But on a plot-level, having seen the original offers no additional understanding or clarity to the AMC version. It doesn't make the new version any less confusing. What it does do is it gives you permission to be confused. It lets you know in advance that full comprehension isn't always going to be possible and freed from the responsibility to understand everything, you may jump into the remake more quickly.]
In general, the new "Prisoner" is a more cohesive series than the original, which would be a compliment in most circumstances, but won't be viewed that way by die-hard traditionalists. While each episode finds 2 taking a very different and episode-specific approach to loosening 6's tongue, there are a number of recurring and evolving characters surrounding our hero, the sort of In-Village relationships that McGoohan's 6 didn't have in the original. The recurring characters include Lennie James' 6, a seemingly well-adjusted cabbie whose life suddenly becomes a good deal more complicated when a giant sinkhole hopes up in his backyard. There's Ruth Wilson's 313, a doctor with absolutely faith in The Village, at least until she begins to have doubts. And in this version, 2 has a son, Jamie Campbell Bower's 11-12, a young man just reaching the age to question his father's authority and the world around him.
The enhanced cohesiveness to the narrative -- 6 makes episode-to-episode progress in solving The Village's mysteries -- is a bit of a sop to contemporary viewers less eager to embrace fragmentation and psychedelia than their '60s counterparts. "Lost" has its share of mind-bending puzzles, but it's practically "The Hungry Caterpillar" in its linear simplicity compared to the original "Prisoner."
In the place of that fragmentation, the new "Prisoner" is driven by people talking to each other in cryptic, roundabout pseudo-Zen koans like "A man with nothing to hide is a man with nothing to find" and "Everything is suspicious if you look at it properly. Everyone has secrets. No one is without guilt. You just have to work out what it is that they're guilty of." Sometimes you have to say "Whoa. Groovy." and move on.
If the original "Prisoner" had a prescience that's allowed to to remain thematically evergreen over 40 years, the new "Prisoner" prefers to be reflective, which means that it's sometimes covering similar ground. While surveillance was very much a part of the original, it's central to Gallagher's "Prisoner," as we learn very early on that Caviezel's 6 wasn't a spy, exactly, but he worked at a CCTV-style organization that monitors the citizenry, attempting to monitor trends in human behavior. The Village is also rigged for constant surveillance, with a central question being whether or not people are actually safer when their security hinges on their being watched at all times. But more than safety, this Village is about regulated happiness and the new "Prisoner" focuses heavily on the ways in which people regulate their happiness in the 21st Century and the placebos we use to cover genuine pain or even malaise. In this light, the Twin Tower mirage 6 keeps seeing at the edge of the desert isn't accidental imagery, nor is it exploitative.
In the end, AMC's "Prisoner" manages to perhaps over-explain, while leaving the mechanics of this world even more confusing. I don't believe it's the kind of explanation you could "predict" as the series progresses, but it allows things to tie together retroactively. I found myself appreciating the effort put into giving "The Prisoner" and pragmatic message and forcing characters into meaningful choices in the end.
So else what works about "The Prisoner"?
*** McKellen is, as you'd probably expect, remarkable. He never allows for a simple read on whether 2 is altruistic or malevolent and he devours the elevated fortune cookie dialogue with Shakespearean relish. He gets to go full-on King Lear by the fifth episode. He also makes everyone around him better, elevating Caviezel's performance in their shared scenes and improving Bower's work, which is quite fine otherwise. Actually, all of the supporting performance, including Wilson, Atwell and James are very fine.
*** The Village itself is a marvel. Shot on location in Swakopmund, Namibia, the other-worldliness of the new Village doesn't top the original's Portmeirion, but it's a worthy substitute.
*** I'm assuming that the screeners sent to critics weren't just using Brian Wilson's "Smile" and the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" as temp music. The tracks off those albums, complete with Wilson's immersive production design, are flawless compliments to both the tone and themes of "The Prisoner." The closing song of the miniseries is a "Pet Sounds" track which, if you follow the lyrics, could be interpreted as explaining the whole thing. I won't spoil it, but it worked beautifully for me. [Oh and yes. I know that there's something a bit ironic about praising "The Prisoner" for forging its own meaning while acknowledging that that meaning is encapsulated in music from one album that was released in 1966 and another that was started around the same time.]
*** Frankly, I enjoyed a lot of the trippiness of the new "Prisoner." I enjoyed the distortion and the playfulness of it, when viewed only on its own merits.
What else doesn't work about "The Prisoner"?
*** Caviezel is a frustratingly placid leading man. Even when he's at his most tortured and frustrated, it feels surface-deep. So his performance is one-note and lacks the intelligence that McGoohan conveyed.
*** The miniseries starts slow and ends without subtlety, so I wouldn't necessarily blame viewers for tuning out early or being frustrated at the end.
*** AMC is smart to air "The Prisoner" as six hours over three nights, because the hours aren't necessarily strong enough in their stand-alone components. And fans of the original will miss certain specific and beloved stand-alone conceits. Fans can note that all of the episode titles are call-backs, even if the substance of the episodes is unrelated.
My bottom line is that as much as I adore many of my fellow critics, the contention that the new "Prisoner" is pointless or lacks vision is just wrong. I can argue with that statement til the cows come home (cows being a recurring part of both "Smile" and "Pet Sounds") and would gladly come back after the miniseries and delve more deeply into the ending and the overall 2009-ness of the whole endeavor.
If the new "Prisoner" fails to entertain or engage you? Well, that's something else. For me, I enjoyed the trickery and McKellen's performance and the architecture of the new Village. I bought into the spirit of the ending, if not the execution.
Just don't watch it with a checklist from the original, trying to go back and forth and trying to make the one live up to the other.
"The Prisoner" airs on AMC over three nights, Nov. 15, 16 and 17.