Critical Mass: Why AMC’s Update of The Prisoner Sucks
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 second installment of which aired last night. (You can find our thoughts on the first installment here.) We’ll be back here in 24 hours to debrief vis-a-vis tonight’s conclusion, bloodied but unbowed. Spoilers ahoy.
Part the Second: Keep a Pig for Stability Edition
Glen Weldon: So, Klimek, I’ve taken the liberty of excising the concluding parenthetical (Or Doesn’t) from our blog title, for several reasons. It scans better/stronger/faster, sure. But we’re now at a point, 2/3 of the way into this death march, at which caveats and conditionals are like unto rocks in our rucksack, and must be cast away, if we’re ever to reach the end.
And so I say this unto you, trusting you’ll agree: The onscreen suckage is a thing both mighty and fearsome.
I get that this show wants to be mysterious and allusive. (What I CAN’T tell, for the life of me, is whether it also aims for allegory, as did the original series. If so – and I sort of hope not – it’s awfully mushy. Any light you could shed on that question would be welcome.)
So, yeah: A certain amount of narrative ambiguity is only expected. In a show like this, it’s the fuel that keeps things moving. But the reason I’m not picking up what this new Prisoner is laying down is that the producers continually mistake necessary ambiguity for inessential mystery. That is to say: I don’t know what, exactly, I’m supposed to know, and what I’m supposed to not know.
Take last night’s second ep, “Darling”, in which we learn (or do we?) that those hacky flashbacks we’ve been seeing since the first ep (or have we?) are just implanted memories (or are they?) engineered by Two (or were they?) in an effort to … to, um. Yeah. Still no idea why they’re doing whatever the hell they’re doing to Six.
There’s also the ponderousness. Sweet fancy Moses, the ponderousness.
Which is not to say there weren’t some good bits. The fact that, in the Village, “therapy” = “being thrown in a cave and getting eaten by Rover.” (Are there Scientologists on the writing staff?) The pig stuff. The matter-of-factness of the gay relationship, though having one half of the couple Old Yeller the other half in that way – hacking away at the back of his neck with a knife so small it’d be overmatched by Amazon’s packing tape – won’t win any GLAAD awards.
Question: What do you make of the way the show seemingly jettisoned the original series’ central question – the identity of Number One? That was a ballsy move, if it wasn’t a red herring….
Chris Klimek: Fetch me my sled, won’t you — Rosebud!
They can afford to toss away one of the original show’s lesser mysteries — after all, who No. 1 is is less important than why everyone is numbered, who assigns them, etc. — because they’ve kept all Prisoner 67’s puzzles while adding too many new ones. Such as: WTF with those big holes in the ground (“atmospheric anomalies,” sayeth Two)? Why can’t they be covered up by, say, a sheet of plywood or something so a sweet little Cosby kid doesn’t ride her tricycle into one of them?
Oh, right: Because that was the most dramatic thing that happened in 90 interminable minutes last night — at least tied with the pen-knife murder —until Lucy/Four-Fifteen jumped down the giant hole in her wedding dress. Unfortunately, Sting did not show up to lead an all-star chorus in singing “We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well.” Missed opportunity, that, especially when you consider they the producers ponied up for Brian Wilson’s “Heroes & Villains” to score the we’re-carting-you-off-for-spelunking/reeducation scene.
Also: “Swine breath is a proven atmosphere stabilizer.”
Besides the basic, crippling narrative-clarity problems you mention, this thing is lousy with intriguing concepts, abysmally executed. My favorite so far is the Gene Simmons Therapy — sorry, Gene Symmetry Therapy — that that makes selected candidates fall in love with each other, Midsummer Night’s Dream-style. That’s interesting, but all of the other subplots— Six’s fake brother, Six’s stint as an “undercover” smoking out other “dreamers”— have been played out in a network hour, a la the '60s version.
By contrast, we’ve been squinting to make sense of those flashbacks of Six in his crib with Lucy/Four-Fifteen for four hours now. Just going by the screen-time calculus, that means this chitchat is more critical than, say, the insurgency-in-the-Village plot alluded to in (I think) the very first episode. Unless that café just blew up to satisfy some mandate to have an explosion at the end of Hour One.
One of our commenters fretted yesterday that Six-of-Nazareth is not a cunning and resourceful man of action the way Six-Prime was, and I must agree. The most impressive thing we’ve seen him do so far is manage to perform sexually for Lucy/Four-Fifteen after knocking back, like, nine Bud longnecks while standing in his kitchen. For England! Or New York. Or something.
Glen Weldon: Speaking of: That interminable scene after the sex, with the Now I’m-gonna-run-fetch-you-citrus-fruits/Psych! I’m-gonna-run-back-and-kiss-you was about as erotic as roadkill and twice as fragrant. I suppose we were meant to understand that the Gene Simmons Therapy was hopping Six up, making him want to rock and all night and par-tee eh-ver-ee-day, but jeez that was hard to watch. One of the rare moments Six has spent stripped to the waist, ruined – ruined I say! – by cheesetastic acting. A crime against shirtlessness, that scene.
Where do you come down on the show’s allegorical intent? Viewers of the original series likely suspected it would end in Deep Weirdness, but because that show so dutifully ticked all the usual boxes of the hourlong action fomat (fistfight!), most of ‘em couldn’t have guessed they’d have to swallow McGoohan’s graduate-seminar-in-a-monkey-mask of an ending.
This show seems to be headed in exactly the opposite direction: Exultant artsy-fartsiness in the service of scene-setting, only to end with Big Mysteries Explained. Which would be all well and good, if I cared about anything besides the Rover scenes. (He glows now! That’s a thing, right? Right?)
Chris Klimek: Alle-whatnow? Sorry, I was busy writing a melody to accompany screenwriter Bill Gallagher’s lyrics.
Six: What did I feel / Before you gave me these fee-eeelings to feeeeel?
Four-Fifteen: Two brought me here to love you / Two brought me here to bray-ache your heart / I’m glad you’re cured of me!
The producers have already said that this Prisoner wraps up more conventionally and explicably than the prior, though maybe that was misdirection, too. Allegorical payload, if any, seems to be about the same as that of The Matrix, though that’s a reach. Related: I’m now prepared to declare Keanu Reeves a better actor than Jim Caviezel. At the very least, he’s a hell of a lot more magnetic while playing dazed and confused.
Look, Prisoner ‘67 happened because Patrick McLongshanks had a crazy idea and the clout to get it made. This version was purely market-driven, but so are plenty of good and even great TV shows and films. It’s the combination of low-to-no-stakes and the utter absence of a unifying, personal worldview — McGoohan’s, Bill Gallagher’s, Sir Ian’s, anybody’s — that’s makes this thing feel so pointless. We’re deep in Twin Peaks Season Two / LOST Season Three / The X-Files Season Whatever territory already, having lost faith that our guides on this head-trip know the way, or that there will be anything much worth seeing when/if we reach our destination.
Of course, if tonight’s conclusion proves me wrong, I’ll happily eat my words. With a side of pork wrap. Come back tomorrow and see.
Are y’all still watching? What were your favorite lyrics-as-dialogue from last night’s episodes? How ‘bout them giant holes? Your comments are welcome.
Glen Weldon reviews theater for the City Paper, books for the NPR website, 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.