`Prison Break' could be Fox's next breakout hit

Series debuts tonight

it bears a resemblance to `24.'

TV Preview

August 29, 2005|By Diane Werts | Diane Werts,NEWSDAY

Entertainment when it's inspired can convince you of anything. Great operas make singing conversations seem normal. Committed rockers can sell nonsense lyrics. TV more than occasionally reaches its zenith in the most ridiculous of circumstances. How enduring are Green Acres and The Dukes of Hazzard? Great art, they may not be. But we can't stop watching.

Into that club, we soon might welcome Prison Break. Fox kicks off the 2005-06 TV season tonight with an adventure drama almost surreal in its absurdity, even gag-inducing in the contrivances it expects you to swallow. Yet it's one tasty piece of lunacy.

In the mold of 24, the producers keep ratcheting up the characters' motivations and schemes. Filmed in Illinois' forbidding Joliet Prison, opened in 1858 (and closed in 2002), its maneuverings quickly take on an operatic outrageousness, casting a strong spell through resolute performances and taut direction.

The title is true to its word, but this is no action thriller. It's a twisted chess game that starts with Michael Scofield, a self-possessed young engineer (Wentworth Miller, seen last season on Joan of Arcadia), holding up a bank for no reason. Or is there one?

He's sent up the river, where he and we are plunged into vengeful assaults, prison politics and national conspiracies. Scofield makes buddies with all sorts of fellas, good and bad, for all kinds of reasons, which become both clearer and more ambiguous by premiere's end - in the best 24 fashion.

If 24's Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is always trying to prevent some disaster, Scofield is accelerating toward one, determined to break out one high-profile death-row prisoner (Dominic Purcell of John Doe) and banking he can succeed thanks to his own particular inside knowledge.

He's no ordinary prisoner, but neither are the others. One might be D.B. Cooper (Muse Watson), the extortionist hijacker who parachuted into 1970s legend. Another certainly is a mob kingpin (Peter Stormare). And there's the street-savvy cellmate (Amaury Nolasco) who eases our hero's way into this nasty new world.

The warden turns out to be a soulful dude (Stacy Keach), and the prison doctor is, naturally, a gorgeous young thing (Sarah Wayne Callies) with her own crucial connections. Everything feels a little too perfect, and just exactly right, with writer Paul Scheuring (Vin Diesel's A Man Apart) and director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon) solidly crafting a suspenseful opener that whets the appetite in many ways for more.

Let's hope once the lines are drawn and the exposition laid down, Prison Break settles into the bang-up psychological chiller it promises to be. The actors are mesmerizing. And there's a physical twist presaged in the first scene that only juices up the quirk quotient. Like 24, you have to go with the flow.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Sun television critic David Zurawik is on vacation.

On TV

What: Prison Break

When: Tonight at 8

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In brief: New Fox drama takes 24's over-the-top formula to prison.

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