Critical Mass: Why AMC’s Update of The Prisoner Sucks (Or Doesn’t)
Wherein two dweebs whose fealty to the 1967 British spy-fi, allegori-stential cult TV series “The Prisoner” is of a Degree Absolute, yak through — er, discuss — our semi-digested reactions to AMC’s three-night, six-hour remake, the first installment of which aired last night. We’ll be back here 24 and 48 hours from now to debrief vis-a-vis Parts Two and Three. Spoilers ahoy.
Chris Klimek: Rough going so far. It’s as bold a reimagining of the original as the much-beloved 21st century Battlestar Galactica was, though that show had the decided advantage of reworking something that kinda sucked the first time around. My “Works” list here is longer than my list of “Works Not,” so why am I not more excited to tune in for more tonight?
Let us recall that The Prisoner aired a few months after Sgt. Pepper was released, and was very much of its era. Then again, Star Trek was in the second season of its original run at the same time, and we got a perfectly groovy update of that last summer.
It Works! I love that Number Six’s (just-“Six” here, perhaps because Sir Ian McKellen objected to the too-evocative sobriquet “Number Two”) sanity is in question. In the original, there was no ambiguity that Number Six was being held against his will, and nobody tried to make him believe the outside world was just a fever-dream. He was even told repeatedly he might be allowed to go back there if only he gave up the “Information. Innnn-Fore-Maitchun!”
Only the business between Sir Ian and the twin psychiatrists (another completely arbitrary, maybe-Cronenbergy little bit of creepiness I liked) here tips us that They want to extract anything from Six.
I also like that they gave him a family. More leverage they can use to try to crack him. Or it would have been, had they not dispensed with that whole gambit just a few scenes after they introduced it. Which brings me to . . .
Not so much. This show features more slow-mo running through sand than a season of “Baywatch.” Does the camera have to do that Michael Bay 360-swirl every time Six is struck with emotion or makes a discovery? That’s worse than having him say things like, “This is the first ray of hope I’ve had since I arrived here!” Jim Caviezel —most famous for the title role in “The Passion of the Christ” — is capable enough that he could, as they say, do it with a look. Maybe that’s why he’s so inert here: They’re not letting him work. Besides the Bay-style camera pirouettes, I also hate the spastic-flash-cutting back, and possibly forward, in time. These, I think, make The Prisoner 2009 immediately feel almost as dated as the original.
This, admittedly, is a matter of personal taste, and I have to acknowledge that unlike almost every other application of this technique, it actually makes sense here, because we’re dealing with a character who is losing trust in his own memories. (Shades of Philip K. Dick. And Memento, by Chris Nolan, who was rumored at one point to be mulling over a big-screen Prisoner remount.) So I understand why they’re doing it. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Glen Weldon: Agreed on the roughness of the going, particularly in the first ep. Yes, it’s a bold reimagining – I can understand the producers’ decision to toss out the original’s Spy vs. Spy tropes; all that dithering about “which side” runs the Village would be tough to justify anymore – but in its absence, I’m still not sure, 1/3 of the way in, what this show’s ostensibly about. More on that in a bit.
My own “Works” list, in no particular order: Ian McKellan’s ice cream vendor suit, which clearly marks him as a Tom-Wolfe-in-Sheep’s-Clothing. Ian M. himself (how DOES he act so well?) especially in that random scene where he’s having his cake and eating it, too. Wonkers, the Village’s cottage industry (sorry) cheesy-ass soap opera. Rover, the giant inflatable golf-ball of smothering doom, who looks like he’s been working out, and the way his presence on the beach causes waves to … unwave themselves or something. The way Two’s ephebic son moons around the place looking like Ellen Degeneres. The desert location. Some aspects of the Village’s art design (okay, the cars). The introduction, and prompt dispatch, of Ninety-Three, who dressed like good old Six version 1.0, and whose apartment was a dead ringer for McGoohan’s.
Works Not, Not Even a Bit: The freakin’ premise. By ditching the original’s notion of the Village as a place where information is extracted from Those Who Know Too Much, and replacing it with this murky corporate shenanigans, There-Is-Only-The-Village amnesia plot, the show never really gets around to laying out what’s at stake. As you note, that original series opening credit sequence may have been long as hell, but you couldn’t sit through it and not know exactly what you were in for. (Only one of many things the show had in common with Gilligan’s Island – ah, but that’s a topic for the breakout session.)
Neither am I sold on the look of the Village’s downtown, or the Escape vacation spot, which both seem too nondescript. Yes, the Village should look like a place where people live; No, it should not look like Boca.
But my biggest Works Not is reserved for whatsisname, Cheekbones McJesusface. Caviezel. Man, this guy’s a great big ball of bland. He’s the lynchpin of the show, and I don’t buy what he’s selling for a second – not when he’s screaming, not when he’s running (which, as you rightly note, he does a tremendous lot), not when he’s attempting to look all vexed and disconsolate.
It’s an unfair comparison, but Sci-Fi ain’t fair, and it must be said: This wuss can’t hold a lava lamp to McGoohan. It’s not just that McGoohan’s sensibility pervades every second of the original. It’s that his performance sold the concept: He paced like a caged animal, his fingers never stopped fidgeting, he scowled out at the world from underneath those creepy flesh-colored eyebrows, he regarded his captors with a knowing, You’ll-All-Be-Sorry smirk, and he let his rage break through his veneer of civility at the oddest, most awesome times; you never knew when a bit of Six’s dialogue would end up in Mightily Pissed: “I know that car. I know every nut. And bolt. And cog. I built it WITH MY OWN HANDS.” Hee.
This Caviezel guy, though, with his schmoopy-eyed moping. You just want to tell him to get down off the fucking cross, already.
Chris Klimek: Right you are, Old Man. Even “Passion” director Mel Gibson knows that McGoohan is irreplaceable. Which is why — speaking of ephebic sons — he cast him as the the eeeeeevil King Longshanks in Braveheart.
You know who would have been a more compelling Six than Caviezel? Not that this would have been feasible, probably, given his commitments and price, but considering the original audience’s association with McGoohan from the long-running Brit spy series Danger Man (Secret Agent here in the States), and the strong implication that Number Six was his character from that show, it woulda been inspired stunt casting to have Kiefer Sutherland play Six. Real America knows him as The Terrorists’ Worst Nightmare, obviously. But he’s versatile enough to combine McGoohan’s righteous indignation with the martyr thing they seem to be trying to wring out of Caviezel. Even though it’s gotten dumber with each passing year, 24 remains essentially the Book of Job as a never-ending action flick, and bringing in Sutherland would create some wonderful resonance.
But if they were gonna go with a screen-Jesus, I’d have preferred Willem Dafoe. C’est la Vie.
Glen Weldon: Ah, but that Braveheart clip’s an exquisite, vintage selection from Mel Gibson’s vast wine cellar of crazy homophobic bullshit. Also offers a satisfying glimpse of McGoohan chewing up the scenery like a beaver with a SAG card. THAT’s what I’m talkin’ bout, people.
Your Sutherland idea is a solid one, if they’d kept the original premise, as opposed to … whatever the hell they’re going for here. If nothing else, Jack Bauer’s capacious and muscular bladder (the guy can make it through an entire day without stopping to pee) would serve him well in a desert climate.
We’ll be back tomorrow to handicap Night Two. In the meantime: Any one else see this thing? Are we alone in watching it? Did none of you unthinkingly turn to AMC at 9:00 expecting to booze it up with Sterling Cooper, only to be confronted with Jesus vs. Gandalf: This Time It’s Personal? Let us know in the comments.
Glen Weldon reviews theater for the City Paper, books for the NPR Web site, and writes about comics for NPR’s Monkey See pop culture blog. Told you he was a dweeb. Chris Klimek writes about pop music, theater, and otherwise for The Washington Post, DCist, The Examiner, and elseworlds.