Arts Desk

Critical Mass: Why AMC’s Update of The Prisoner (Still, Mostly) 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 final installment of which aired last night. (Parts one and two of our discussion are here and here.) Spoilers ahoy.

No, really.  Spoilerpalooza.

We mean it.

Still here?  Then let’s shall.

Finale: Your Revolt Is Good and Honest Edition

Chris Klimek: Oh.  It was all a dream!

Specifically, a Matrix-like communal dream, dream-dream-dreamt to rehabilitate people whose mental illnesses — as diagnosed, albeit only semi-knowingly by Six, whose real name is Michael, by the way — prevent them from being productive members of the waking world.   The Village is The Matrix.  Only instead of being generated by sentient supercomputers, it comes from the psychically industrious Mrs. Curtis, Two’s wife, who paradoxically must spend most of her time in the Village in a drug-induced sleep, lest the big holes in the world start appearing.  Right?  Am I close?

We were both pretty mad at this thing yesterday, G-Weld, so I’m pleased to be able to report that the final 15 minutes or so of this meandering opus had me fairly riveted.  Screenwriter Bill Gallagher answered the series’s most urgent questions — What is the Village, who made it and why — while leaving enough opaque to preserve some mystery. Unsolved:  What does Summakor do?  Is the Scientology-like “perfection” of the suffering its main mission, or just a charitable sideline for Mr. Curtis/Two?  How can people be physically present and lucid in the corporeal world of New York at the same time their psychic surrogates seem to be trapped in the Village?

This spin on The Prisoner deviates from the original even more radically than it at first appeared, and that I like.  It might even have some relevance, in that it seems all but certain that within our lifetimes — hell, within 20 years — people who can afford it will have the option of abdicating itchy, smelly, unpredictable life-in-a-meatsuit in favor of a permanent virtual-reality gilded cage.  So they found a way to make the premise make sense, maybe, in the 21st century.  Good for them.

So we’re left with the biggest question:  Was it worth it?  Did the boldness of the solution justify the pain of the journey:  The surfeit of ideas, almost none of them given adequate nourishment. The. Glacial.  Pace.  The lack of tension.  The defanged, edited-for-television feel of what stingy rations of sex and violence the show gave us.

Speaking only for myself, I watch for the mild, oaky flavor with just a hint of lavender.  And speaking only for myself, not really.  I like my juice with a lot more pulp, thanks.  For the vast majority of its seemingly-vast screen time, this show was austere, confusing, and just plain dull.  Booooooo.

Glen Weldon: A: Austere, confusing, just plain dull – check, check, and one of those huge-ass novelty checks they hand lottery winners, respectively.

B: “G-Weld”?

C:  You’re right, it did get better at the end, but not enough – not near enough – to redeem the preceding hours of willful obtuseness, Caviezel Cafailure, and sand.

As you note, writer Bill Gallagher posed the same Who/What/Why questions McGoohan did, but answered them differently.  I’d just add that also he assigned each of those questions a much different value than the original series did.

The original Prisoner answered some of the big questions up front: We knew WHAT the Village was (a prison, duh) and WHY it existed (to extract and protect In-for-mation).  What we didn’t know was WHO ran it.  (Yes, as you said yesterday, the whole “Who is Number One?” meshugas was just McGoohan’s MacGuffin.  But, Mcgooffin or not, it was the question that viewers expected to see answered, when they tuned into his finale.  The poor saps.)

In the ‘09 Prisoner, on the other hand, it was pretty clear at the outset that Two was the only WHO, but left WHAT the Village was, and WHY it existed, as open questions meant to drive the narrative.  I’d argue they drove it off a cliff.

Yes, getting hemi-answers to those questions was satisfying.  And the series’ closing image/dialogue officially Did Not Suck.  But that’s some mighty silty water to be served after six hours of wandering in the desert.

I’ll ask you to put on your music critic hat (what am I saying, hat? You hipster music critics wear hoodies now, right?) and weigh in on the Beach Boys on the soundtrack.  Did that strike you, as it did me, like a deliberate attempt to distance the show from the original?

Every time I watch McGoohan’s original finale, with its climactic gun battle set to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” I’m struck by … well, I’m struck by the fact that a fucking 1967 TV show about sinister weather balloons got the rights to a Beatles song.  That can’t have happened often, right?  I can’t imagine John and Paul sitting around going, “Look, mates. There’s this mad show on the telly in the U.S., Gentle Ben. We let ‘em ‘ave ‘Rocky Raccoon’.”

Given that the climactic moment of the original is so closely associated with the Beatles, is it not significant that this new Prisoner weighs in on the opposite side of the Great Music Geek Pet Sounds vs. Sgt. Pepper’s Divide?

Me, I think the thing needed even more Beach Boys.  That scene at the beach where Six’s brother gets eaten by Rover as the waves roll backwards would have benefited from a few bars of “Surfin’ USA.” Any shot of the catatonic Mrs. Two? “Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” All those shots of Six, running? “I Get Around.” The holes opening up in the sand? “Good Vibrations.” Um.  Oh, the shots at the resort? “Kokomo.”  I’d go on, but we’re fast approaching the limits of my Beach Boys knowledge.  John Stamos!

Chris Klimek:  Not much of a hat guy.

One might protest that playing The Beach Boys’ “I Know There’s an Answer” over the closing credits is a bit on the nose, but hey, I like that kind of thing.  And before the title (or the song’s original moniker, “Hang on to Your Ego”) even registered with me, I thought, “Of course!  Because Brian Wilson barricaded himself in his bedroom for years, ballooned to 300 lbs., and underwent a regimen of psychotherapy so controversial it eventually cost his shrink/manager his license!”

I don’t recall hearing any Beach Boys until “Heroes & Villains” showed up during Night Two (when orderlies are dragging a straightjacketed Six to the Learning Annex Cave so he can rescue Three-Thirteen).  By then it was already plenty apparent this Prisoner wasn’t much like the other, so I’m not sure any further distancing was required.

Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper have a way-different cultural weight now than they did then.  “All You Need Is Love” had its public debut in June of ’67, a mere seven months before it was used in the Dadaesque finale of The Prisoner, so it would have had a far less musty resonance for that audience than “I Know There’s an Answer” has for us: Pet Sounds predates the original Prisoner by more than year.   So we’re talking about a current pop song versus an oldie.  Still, I think your rationale for the choice makes sense.

Relevance?  Er, yes, I’ll take just a little splash.  Thank you.

I think this had just the right amount of Beach Boys.  What it could have used more of were real-world analogues for some of the Villiage’s bizarre iconography.  Oh, Rover is just a manifestation of Michael/Six’s fear?  Thanks, but I kind of wish it was also something else, too — something tangible. The Fall is a recent film that did this kind of thing spectacularly well.  So is — as you pointed out — The Wizard of Oz, which did it in 1939.

So was the gay son who hung himself the only purely imaginary character in The Village, or were there others?  It seems to me that everyone else of any note we saw in The Village also made an appearance on Terra Firma.

Glen Weldon:  Just to clarify: Your estimable girlfriend referenced that 1939 film before I did, if you’ll recall, for which I was exceedingly grateful, because if she hadn’t, I would have been forced to be Gay Dude Who Links Everything Back to The Wizard of Oz, and that way lies madness – and jauntily tied cravats.

As for Summakor – well, the producers of The Prisoner ginned up a fake Web site,  as you do, nowadays.  Doesn’t answer any questions, but not a bad post-lunch time-sink.

And yeah, I think the gay weepy murdering alcoholic Degeneresesque twink was the only character who didn’t have an real-world analog.  Unless you count Zac Efron.

Ba-ZING!

Right: I think we’ve wrung all we can outta this show, my friend.  And here we stand, bloodied but unbowed.  We been in the shit, you and me.  Where’s our parade?

It’s only fair to point out that there are lots of positive reviews of this thing out there, so if any of you out there dug it, and are willing to express what you dug about it, take it to comments.  And let us agree to disagree.

About the extent to which you are wrong.

Which is really, really a lot.

——-

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.

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  • Luke

    All very good points with which I agree. Also, some day I hope you are writing this about me: "barricaded himself in his bedroom for years, ballooned to 300 lbs., and underwent a regimen of psychotherapy so controversial it eventually cost his shrink/manager his license!”

  • smg

    I'd have to agree that, after all is said and done, I preferred the original, too. And I can't stand the Beach Boys, so wasn't so crazy about them popping up in this one. Seemed weird to me.

  • jc

    Well as much as I hate to admit it I actually really liked the closing scene a la Beach Boys. It finally seemed like it had a little of that tongue-in-cheek tone of the orginal. Sir Ian was definitely the one saving grace of this overly-weepy-choppy-edited-snoozefest and the only one able to have a little fun with this wonker of a remake (I site the eating cherry cake scene sans fork and avec bib; stripping down main street; the fifteen-minute-long cigarette-porn scene; even getting hit in the head with a rock by some dweeby village kid)

    But my real complaint was that there was not enough scenes with the real hero of the Prisoner...Rover. If I have to watch a bunch of flashbacks of 6 as a kid running slowly on a beach I want just as many scenes of Rover running errands around the village...bouncing his minirovers to rovergarten etc.

    Lastly are we meant to think that the present stand-in for a coldwar-era enemy is a pharmeceutical company that abducts schizos to rehabilitate them in some psycho-village? I ask the question but this series has left me disinterested enough that I'll probably not wait for an answer.

    Well at least now AMC will let me return to my original purveyor of cigarette-porn (MadMen).

    Oh...and really AMC? who's rushing to pre-order this thing on dvd.

  • dawn

    I caught a few snippets of the show's installments here and there but now plan to go back and watch the whole thing. And, love it. Despite your negativity. :)

  • Jack

    I really enjoyed "The Fall" but had a difficult time understanding why. the first thought was the cinematography. second thought was that young actress. the dialogue between her and the patient was so natural. i can remember the imagery, especially the colors; but not as much about the fairy tale. probably need to see it again.

  • http://www.twitter.com/ghweldon Glen Weldon

    The Internet's jc is right!

    Sir Ian did manage to make his blank verse dialogue sound real, and seemed to be having a good time. And I can't shake the feeling that that verdammt cigarette scene is still going on, somehow.

  • jc

    Weldon...I would seriously watch a six hour mini-series with Mckellan of that scene...hell I'd watch him wax nostalgic over chewing winegums as a kid before i'd watch the prisoner/09 again.

    Jack, as for "The Fall" see it again. The imagery and and young actress in the movie are lovely and so is the story-within-a-story...personally the reason i think it works so well is that all of the elements serve the main and most compelling story surrounding girl and the stuntman. It's like listening to 1001 arabian nights. While the individual stories are enthralling, one shouldn't forget the reason their being told it really about life and death. ultimately it's always a matter of why should we care. "The Fall", I found myself caring. (so please take note other would-be producers of remakes)

  • nd

    I may never see any of these episodes, but it sounds like you're telling me they haven't yet found room in the soundtrack for the Iron Maiden song "The Prisoner." I love the Beach Boys, but what a wasted opportunity.

  • chicodc

    This event remains on my DVR. The universe will decide whether it lasts through the holidays. But your reviews certainly gave me plenty to think about and look at when I do eventually watch this. And thanks for the "huge-ass lottery checks" line, Glen. Your reviews gave me plenty to look forward to each day, even if this miniseries falls short.

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  • http://www.hemisphire.com Hemisphire

    Finally finished it and regretted it. Convinced a friend not continue watching beyond the second ep. Need to rewatch the original to get the taste of this out of my mind.

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