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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, May 21

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Prison Break, which has its two-hour premiere tonight on Fox at 7pm (next week it will be in its regular 8pm time slot), is the latest "serialized" television show to hit the airwaves. Chicago structural engineer Michael Scofield deliberately commits armed robbery to be sentenced to the Fox River State Penitentiary, where his brother, Linc, is on death row for murdering the brother of the vice president. Linc insists he was framed, but his execution is scheduled only a few months away. There's not enough time to find the evidence to exonerate Linc, so why not break him out instead? The show is shot locally. In a nice touch, the Marina Towers can be seen outside of the window during Michael's attempted heist, and the prison scenes are filmed at the Joliet Correctional Center, which ceased housing prisoners in 2002.

Rather than having its continuing backstory as the building block for the series, Prison Break makes it the front story. There are plenty of other narratives happening simultaneously, but the focal point is how Michael and his brother are going to escape. How much research did Michael do before he was sent inside? How will he use other inmates as resources? What are his plans, and how will he execute them?

A few other dramas have tackled this sort of epic scope, the most well-known being 24. In its initial season, CTU agent Jack Bauer struggled to protect a presidential candidate as well as save his kidnapped wife and daughter. This series took timing to an extreme, with each episode representing an hour in real time. The unusual format was a risk, but it paid off: 24 proved to be a critical and audience favorite, enough for a fifth season to air on Fox in January 2006. The breakneck pace and edgy scenarios ratcheted up the tension, and if you missed one episode, you missed a lot.

Lost also incorporated a slower timeline. The story of people who survived an airplane crash in the South Pacific, this breakout ABC hit high ratings and scored many a kudo from reviewer and fan alike. At the beginning of the first season, each episode represented one day. However, by the time the castaways sent four of their own out to sea on a homemade raft in an attempt to find help, the survivors had been missing for 45 days. The combination of the mysterious elements of the island and the growing sense of desperation lends itself to a sort of clausterphobic immediacy.

Another new Fox offering, the upcoming murder mystery Reunion, operates under an unusual structure in which each episode represents one calendar year. The main characters will "age" from their late teens to their late 30s over the course of the series. While most shows seem timeless during the typical 22-episode season — think Simpsons, where nobody ever ages and Bart and Lisa are forever in school — Prison Break, Lost and Reunion all use time as a plot device as well as a hook.

Occasionally, episodic series will expand their own major story lines as well. Alias took a stab at it, and Joss Whedon deliberately made the fourth season of his vampire drama Angel "operatic" in scope, with the main focus on a complex arc that included an apolcalypse and a god. However, many people found these story lines to be too hard to follow or too involved, and both shows backed away from such "arc-y" choices in the seasons that followed.

Will Prison Break and its odd premise work? Tough to say. Popular franchises such as CSI and Law & Order are the antithesis of continuous story lines, so much so that when a longtime L&O character departed the series, her blurted question, "Is this because I'm a lesbian?" seemed to come out of nowhere. These procedural dramas are "snackable" — the casual viewer doesn't need to know the background of every cop, lawyer or lab technician to follow the story of the week. Americans are notoriously known for both our short attention spans and our desire for instant gratification.

However, in these days of TiVo and similar recording devices, TV gazers don't have to worry about missing individual episodes of fast-moving and driven dramas. Storing up several episodes to watch weeks later isn't uncommon. The main challenge is to grab the audience and get them invested, and the first hour of this pilot, directed by executive producer Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men 3) doesn't disappoint. I admit I have a soft-spot for anything filmed in our fair city, but Prison Break is also well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed. The slate gray winter weather echoes the feeling of desolation the interiors supply, and there are also several interesting secondary characters and opportunities to take the story in several directions. And yes, it doesn't hurt that both of the lead actors are attractive. I'm not gonna lie.

The main problem, though, is what happens when — that's right, when — Linc, Michael and their accomplices (because there's no way they'll be able to bust out and go underground long enough to prove Linc's innocence without other people helping them) go on the lam. Will there be failed attempts first? Will the title of the show change? (Similar questions can be applied to Lost as well: what happens if they're found?) Will the intriguing gimmick become too unwieldy and eventually break the suspension of disbelief? In the case of Prison Break, I hope not, because I really liked the first hour of the pilot and think this show has tons of potential. And I always wondered what happened to the actor that put Steve Buscemi in the wood chipper in Fargo.

Prison Break, Fox, Mondays 8pm
24, Fox, (premieres in January)
Lost, ABC, Wednesdays 8pm (premieres September 21)
Reunion, Fox, Thursdays 8pm (premieres September 8)
Alias, ABC, Thursdays 7pm Angel, in reruns on FX and available on DVD

For an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at Chicago-based Prison Break, check out Tribune reporter Maureen Ryan's impressions after a day on the set.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at

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