When I first heard about the concept for 'Prison Break,' I have to admit that I just didn't get it. A television series about two guys trying to escape some dingy old jail? How could such a slim premise sustain itself for more than a few episodes? And what would happen once they did break free, anyway? High tail it down to Hawaii, and then we get 'Prison Break: The Magnum P.I. Years?'
Of course, as the show's millions of fans well know, I was dead wrong. 'Prison Break' is in fact a truly riveting show -- the kind that grabs you from the first episode and doesn't let go. Sure, the concept itself often defies credibility, but like other superior serialized dramas including '24,' 'Lost' and 'Heroes,' 'Prison Break' so effectively creates its own self-contained universe that we can help but suspend our disbelief and hang on for the ride.
Here's the set-up. Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) has exhausted every last avenue of our legal system in an effort to clear his brother Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) of a murder he didn't commit. So, he does what any loyal sibling would do in the same situation -- he gets himself incarcerated in the very same prison as his brother to break him out. But wait, it gets better. It just so happens that Michael is also an architect, and wouldn't ya know it, he designed the prison, too! Even more brilliantly, Michael has the blueprints interwoven within a giant tapestry he gets tattooed over most of his upper body, so he's literally a walking roadmap to freedom.
And that's just where things start. By the time the first season kicks into high gear, Michael will undergo all manner of humiliations (near-rape, torture, etc) as he attempts to form an inter-prison network to help save his brother. (You'd think by this point he'd be more worried about saving himself, but never mind that.) On top of all this, in what can only be described as a conspiracy, the Secret Service is on to Michael's plot, and have started to kill off the family's friends and loved ones to ensure that Lincoln stays behind bars.
Okay, so the story is more than absurd -- it's utterly preposterous. But 'Prison Break' is so energetically directed that it immediately conned me into swallowing even the most ridiculous plot points. It's almost endearing the way the series keeps piling on one over-the-top situation after another, leaving you exhausted but always with a silly grin on your face. The show's breathless pacing is a huge asset, serving as a narrative steamroller that, like '24,' moves so whiplash-fast that it squeezes in enough story in one episode to equal five other movies. We're always left in such a breathless state of anticipation to see what comes next that there's no time left to look back and pick apart the inconsistencies.
'Prison Break' is also an impeccably produced series. Every element is top-notch, with sharp writing, evocative lighting (the prison world is a foreboding universe unto itself) and believable, dedicated performances. The action and stunt sequences are also first-rate, and the series has even created a few of its own sustained visual motifs (particularly the use of digital zoom-ins to pump up the adrenaline) which are quite effective. Thankfully, there is not an overabundance of cheesy CGI effects, either (a problem on the otherwise stellar 'Lost'), so it never looks cheap, nor does it divert the focus away from where it should be -- on the characters and their predicament.
If I have any worries with 'Prison Break,' it's that after devouring this first season on Blu-ray, I don't know how the filmmakers can possibly keep it up. I can only assume that Michael and Lincoln will eventually escape... but what makes 'Prison Break' so exciting is its confined milieu and the dangling carrot of a final resolution to our hero's quest. If both of those elements go away, it could be hard to retain the magic. Still, whatever the ultimate fate of the show, we'll always have this crackerjack first season to enjoy. It's quite a ride.
The quality of TV shows sure has improved in the years since I was a kid. I grew up watching cut-rate action shows like 'Knight Rider' and 'The Six Million Dollar Man,' which usually looked cheap and, well, like a TV show. Now we have series with production values that often rival those of big-budget Hollywood movies. That's well in evidence on this first-ever Blu-ray release of 'Prison Break,' which certainly holds its own against any recent theatrical high-def release that I've seen.
Fox presents all 22 episodes in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video, spread across six discs (four apiece on the first five platters, and the final two on the last disc). 'Prison Break' makes fine use of contrasts, with the interiors of the prison drab and colorless, while the exteriors are much brighter and more vibrant. Color reproduction is clean and smooth, and for me a huge improvement over broadcast HD, which is usually so noisy and laden with artifacts. Contrast is nicely-modulated across the entire grayscale, with a healthy amount of detail even in the shadows. Blacks are also spot-on, and the sense of depth and dimensionality to the image is impressive. I did feel the transfers had a slightly edgy sheen, and occasionally there is some softness to various shots. Otherwise, 'Prison Break' looks excellent.
I can only imagine the challenges that must come with producing a full hour of television every week (most theatrical features get months -- even years). Perhaps as a result, the sound design for 'Prison Break' didn't thrill me as much as its visual style. There isn't all that much going on and true immersion is rare. Still, for a television show, remains impressive.
Each episode gets a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit). Surround effects are pretty frequent, and are almost always employed for action-oriented scenes and other stand-out moments. Considering that the series takes place in a cavernous prison, a little more sustained ambiance would have been nice, but the mix always sounds clean, with better low bass than I expected (especially with the score, which packs plenty of punch). And unlike so many lesser shows on television, 'Prison Break' never sounds cheap -- there is an expansiveness and a realism to the dynamics that is palpable. Granted, dialogue can get a bit murky at times, as I found some of the louder scenes tended to overwhelm in terms of aggressive sound effects. Aside from this bit of volume tweaking, these mixes hold up quite nicely.
Although Fox is a bit late to the TV-on-high-def hit parade, they certainly haven't skimped on the extras for this Blu-ray release of 'Prison Break.' Everything from the previously-released first season DVD release has been ported over, and it's a pretty comprehensive and entertaining package. (Unfortunately, Fox has also ported over the same 480p/i/MPEG-2 video, so don't expect anything better than standard-def in this section.)
'Prison Break' really surprised me. Although I'd resisted the show since it first premiered three years ago, after being forced to watch it for this review, I've become riveted. It's compelling television of the sort where the minute one episode is over, you can't wait for the next. This is a very fine Blu-ray release, too. Both the video and audio are sharp, and Fox hasn't skimped on the extras, porting over everything from the previous DVD release. An easy recommend.