Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Prison Break"

With only one more episode to go before Prison Break's mid-Season Four hiatus, I continue to be completely hooked on the FOX series, which remains one of my guiltiest of pleasures. (And Stephen King's as well.)

PB might well be thought of as the poster child for the Marshall Fine argument: that series should not overstay their welcome--should perhaps last only one season.

But PB may actually be getting better. It reminds me a lot of 24 in this regard--a continuing serial that should really have only lasted one season and that always, always, always seem close to jumping the shark. Here's what I said about that other FOX show in my "Afterword" to Steven Peacock's superb collection.

Though I have watched 24 ardently, my suspension of disbelief has not always been willing. My attachment to the series has not prevented me from (like most viewers) staring in disbelief at the off-the-scale implausible perils of Kim Bauer, incredulously questioning the time it takes in the 24verse to cross Los Angeles by car or return to the city from the Mojave, wondering how CTU could be so ludicrously incompetent, puzzling how Mike Novick could serve so many roles in so many administrations, wincing at Terri Bauer’s soap-operaish amnesia (and pregnancy), Chase Edmunds’ secret love child, or Jack’s miraculous return from the dead and astonishing on-the-run recovery from an addiction to smack, mystified at the tendency of each day’s breakneck events to peak, like clockwork, at the top of the hour, and achieve climax at the end of 24.

In a famous passage in The Poetics Aristotle had observed (with Greek tragedy and not television narrative in mind) that “With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” “[P]lot,” the Greek philosopher was convinced, “must not be composed of irrational parts. Everything irrational should, if possible, be excluded; or, at all events, it should lie outside the action of the play. . . . But once the irrational has been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to it, we must accept it in spite of the absurdity.” Does 24 pass Aristotle’s test?

In the age of the Internet we have a new name for the failure to do so. Thanks to Jon Hein’s popular website (and later book), it has now become common, after a telling moment on Happy Days when the Fonzie actually did leap over said marine predator, to speak of the moment when a good television show goes bad—when we realize our “favorite show has lost its magic, has begun the long, painful slide to the TV graveyard. . . .” 24 has, of course, inspired its own entries on the website (, but revealingly the majority of visitors have insisted the series has yet to take the leap.
It is hard to believe that those who find 24 still shark-free are watching the same series I am. 24, a show that, as numerous essays in this book demonstrate, experiments radically with the nature and form of televisuality, has likewise taken shark-jumping to a new level. By jumping the shark incessantly, like clockwork, 24 has transformed the vault into a leap of narrative faith in which the viewer, as breathless and unremitting as the story itself, plunges on, untroubled by doubt or disbelief, misgivings or qualms.

Umberto Eco was thinking of one of the great, transcendent films when he observed that “[t]wo clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.” The equally transcendent 24 is such a reunion

Prison Break is yet another celebration. The extended torments of Michael Scofield, his brother, Sucre, Mahone, and company have no taken on (as have Jack Bauer's) a Job-like quality, only possible thanks to PB's (and 24's) vast narrative. 24, however, clearly began the final, termnial leap of said predator in Season Six and may complete the jump this coming season, and PB could find its limits soon too. Right now, however, it is doing just fine, thank you.

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