Monday, November 02, 2009
AMC's The Prisoner Mini-Series -- Here's a remake I've been waiting most of my life for. I started watching Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner when it was running in late night on, I think, CBS back in the 1970s. Its rich mix of science fiction, espionage and paranoia wrapped around questions of power, control and identity made it probably my all-time favourite TV series, and a show I think is still ahead of its time some 40 years after it was first broadcast.
It's been vastly influential, echoing in forgotten series like Nowhere Man, popular ones like Lost, and probably a dozen more I could list if I thought about it for a couple of minutes.
There was simply nothing like it on TV before, and nothing ever reached its dizzying heights after; not every episode was perfect, but most were at least very good, all were interesting, and a few were transcendent in the way they involved the viewer in Number 6's struggle for individuality and freedom.
And now it's been remade as a six-episode mini-series for basic cable channel AMC. Starring Jim Caviezel as Six (the "Number" prefix has been dropped in all cases here) and Ian McKellen as Two, the mini-series is inspired by the original but does not seem to be a direct sequel or a by-the-numbers remake. New explanations for the existence of The Village are hinted at, and new shadings are added to the psychological mix, including issues of sexual identity that actually make for a thoughtful addition to the heady brew of social and political issues that the original tackled. Weird new post-Lost elements are added, some compelling (the holes that seem to be appearing in reality) and some not so much (the pigs that are touted as the solution to the holes -- yeah, you definitely have to see it to believe it).
There are some really first-rate performances here, especially from McKellen as Two (and especially Un-Two, a Leo McKern-worthy performance) and Jamie Campbell-Bower as his son, 11-22. There is a mountain of subtext in the relationship between the two, and that aspect is probably the most vital of the series.
Unfortunately, the entire endeavour is hobbled utterly by a lifeless and nuance-free lead actor in Caviezel as Six. McGoohan brought anger, passion and purpose to the original Number Six, but Caviezel brings absolutely nothing to the lead role here. He is very good at playing stunned and confused, as in when he first awakes on the edge of The Village, but I felt nothing at all for his character as he confronted Two and his schemes and conspiracies. One episode features Six recruited by Two to teach surveillance at a school in The Village, but I never felt sucked into his deals with Two in the same way one understood why Number Six would go along with Number Two's plots in the original. At no time in the entire series did I root for Six, an essential element of McGoohan's series -- one never necessarily felt his Number Six was a nice guy or even a hero, but he was always sympathetic and one always wanted to know how he was going to try to get out of whatever dilemma Number Two had thrown him into in any given episode.
The elements that comprise AMC's Prisoner remake are so close to perfect that I truly am sad that it falls so short of the mark. The cinematography is intriguing and occasionally beautiful. McKellen and Campbell-Bower give all they have to their roles. The music is fantastic. But time and again, watching all six episodes, as I continued to feel a gnawing ambivalence for the entire affair, I kept coming back to the weakness of Caviezel's performance, and also the fatal error of spending a good deal of every episode in flashbacks (or possibly forwards? The Lost influence is fairly powerful) to Six's life outside The Village. These sequences spend a lot of time on Six's alternate life as Michael, but really tell us nothing about him as a person, or why we should care that he is trapped in The Village.
Like the original, the final episode ends in metaphysics and scenes open to multiple interpretation. Unlike the original series finale, though, it is torpid and vague and lifeless and will not prompt viewers to ponder the meaning of the mythology for decades to come. Finishing the six episodes, I said to my wife "I don't know how to review this thing, other than to tell people to watch the original." Patrick McGoohan created a timeless epic that still feels fresh, unusual and relevant to our lives. AMC's remake feels like a faint echo of something meaningful, a well-intentioned effort that fails to escape the powerful shadow of its far superior inspiration.
A copy of The Prisoner was provided by the network for the purposes of review.
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