Consider for a second the grand effect that “24” has had on television culture over the past five years, and you’ll quickly understand how a show like “Prison Break” becomes an overnight sensation. Of course, it takes more than just a few comparisons to television’s finest hour to warrant such unanimous appreciation – including a rouge’s gallery of engaging criminal characters and a season filled with heart-stopping cliffhangers – but the prison drama has yet to disappoint. That is, unless you count the four-month hiatus issued by Fox, which forced fans to sit through the lonely holiday season before finally seeing the final nine episodes. Color me sarcastic, but that probably wasn’t the smartest move, despite the fact that the series managed to maintain its critical buzz well into the devastating season finale. And while it may seem repetitive to explain the show’s key premise, there’s a lot more going on here that isn’t in the title.
After his brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) is wrongly accused of murdering the Vice President’s brother and sent to prison on death row, structural engineer Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) purposefully has himself incarcerated in order to orchestrate an escape. Hiding all the relevant information (including a complete blueprint of the prison) in a gothic tattoo that covers his body, Michael enters the prison with only one goal: save his brother from certain death. He quickly realizes, however, that in order to pull off one of the biggest prison escapes in history he’s going to need a little help, and while mafia boss John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare) and cellmate Fernando Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) are invited to join him in exchange for future contributions, the group quickly earns a few unwelcome guests as well, including ex-military badass Benjamin “C-Note” Franklin (Rockmond Dunbar) and Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell (Robert Knepper), a psychotic white supremist who discovers the hidden escape route during a prison riot.
Michael does say “no” to a few inmates, though, namely the stir crazy Haywire (Silas Weir Mitchell), who believes that Michael’s tattoo is a puzzle leading straight to the gateway of Hell, and the mid-season addition, Tweener (Lane Garrison), a scared wigger who works as a spy for resident asshole and head of security, Captain Brad Bellick (Wade Williams). That doesn’t, however, guarantee that they won’t be coming along for the ride. And though Bellick proves to be a major pain in the ass, Michael has a couple of his own allies on the inside, including Sarah Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies), the prison doctor and possible love interest, and Warden Pope (Stacy Keach), a sort of surrogate father-type who relies on the good-natured inmate to help him complete a model of the Taj Mahal as a present to his wife.
Meanwhile, as Michael and the rest of the inmates work towards realizing their escape, Lincoln’s lawyer and ex-girlfriend, Veronica Donovan (Robin Tunney), works towards clearing his name of the murder. With Lincoln’s son, LJ (Marshall Allman), and a well-meaning lawyer (Frank Grillo) in tow, Veronica faces off against a dirty Secret Service agent (Paul Adelstein) who will do whatever it takes to end all investigation into the matter; even it means killing them by order of the Vice President (Patricia Wettig).
The writing on the series is mediocre at best, with the last half of the season ultimately suffering from a tired formula of plopping roadblock after roadblock in the way of Michael and his crew. It hardly matters, though, since the real appeal of the program comes from the engaging cast of characters – criminal or not – that all share a stake in the success of the prison break. Even guys like T-Bag and C-Note, who were initially viewed as the definitive villains of the series, were offered some sort of redemption in the flashback episode, “Brother’s Keeper,” while others, like the deliciously evil Abruzzi (played here perfectly by Stormare), never seem capable of change.
And with the release of the first season on DVD, fans can finally watch the series as it was initially intended: without interruption. Presenting all twenty-two episodes in their original 1.78:1 widescreen video format (and a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack), the six-disc box set also features a healthy selection of bonus material including deleted scenes, cast/crew commentaries and more. The alternate/deleted scenes are actually a pain to watch, given that they’re divided (by episode) across all six discs, and because there’s nothing of real merit to write about, I’ll leave it at that. The audio commentaries – featuring various cast/crew on half a dozen episodes – aren’t much better, but at least you’ll gain some insight into the making of the show from series creator Paul Scheuring.
The rest of the bonus material appears on the final disc, with a 30-minute making-of documentary headlining a host of interesting production featurettes like “If These Walls Could Talk,” a quick historical rundown of the Joliet Correctional Facility, and “Beyond the Ink,” a 16-minute interview with Tom Berg, creator of the infamous body tattoo. There’s also an inside look (“Fox Movie Channel Presents: Making a Scene”) at filming within the confined space of a prison cell, but it’s far too short to make any sort of lasting impression. It may not look like much, but there are plenty of extras here to keep you busy until the new season begins in August, and while it’s still undetermined exactly what kind of effect “Prison Break” will have on the television industry, we can all agree that it’s sure to be one hell of a ride.