You could be forgiven for tuning into FOX recently and wondering what year it was. A quick glance at its schedule would suggest the network is living in the past – or at least with revivals of The X-Files, 24, and now Prison Break, trying to relive some of its past glories. Early in 2016, FOX launched a six-episode revival of the spooky FBI show, netting a ratings win that helped fill in the crater left by the miniseries’ overall critical response. It has now been over a year since Mulder and Scully returned seeking the truth that’s still out there, and while rumblings of another trip to the FBI’s storeroom of misbegotten files is reportedly in the talking stages, the network has also endeavored to bring other hits in its back catalog back to life in one form or another.
2017 has already seen the return of the 24 franchise in the form of 24: Legacy, which thunder-punched its way onto screens with Corey Hawkins stepping in for Kiefer Sutherland who’s gone off to be the leader of the free world at ABC. Like The X-Files, Legacy has been met with its fair share of criticism. While the show’s unique storytelling mechanics and real-time action-adventure are still ticking away like a Swiss watch, the show’s actual narrative has been derided for its depiction of Muslims and immigrants. In addition to lower-than-expected ratings, Legacy hasn’t quite proven itself capable of carrying the Jack Bauer torch.
That presents a unique challenge for the Prison Break revival. Though popular in its own right, the series never really had the same pop cultural cache that came with the names Mulder, Scully, or Bauer. Like Showtime’s Homeland, the series was best suited to being a one-and-done, edge-of-your-seat miniseries since, after an anxious first season that lived up to its title, the show painted itself into ever-more absurd corners, creating a complicated (not necessarily complex) mythology intended to keep the show running in perpetuity. The show fought a losing battle in trying to reclaim its season 1 glory for another three seasons, and it leaned increasingly on the strong supporting cast set around Wentworth Miller’s Michael Scofield and Dominic Purcell’s Lincoln Burrows. Robert Knepper’s unctuous T-Bag, the always-terrific Rockmond Dunbar as C-Note, and Sarah Wayne Callies turn as Sara Tancredi made for an attractive enough group of characters to carry a few extra seasons depicting a conflict against the nebulous organization known simply as The Company.
With Michael sacrificing himself in the finale to save Sara, the return of Prison Break takes the term “revival” to an appropriately silly extreme. The series had always been fitted with outlandish narrative elements designed to keep the audience on their toes, and so when season 5 begins with Lincoln’s discovery that Michael may not be dead after all, but is instead locked away in a – you guessed it – prison in war-torn Yemen, the notion feels right at home, serving as the narrative engine driving the revival for much of the first few episodes.
‘Ogygia’ moves fast for a premiere, and yet, considering season 5 (or Prison Break: Sequel) has about half the usual episodes of its predecessors, it doesn’t move fast enough. A familiar exercise in team-building, the first hour struggles to strike the right balance in terms of getting those already acquainted with the series up to speed and educating those poor souls using the revival as their jumping-on point. Lincoln is again having a hard go of it, as he spends the opening moments of the series being chased by thugs before a recently paroled T-Bag shows up on his doorstep with evidence that Michael isn’t as dead as once thought. From there, the premiere shuffles through the usual reintroductions. The hour stops briefly at Sara’s to meet her new husband Jacob (Mark Feuerstein) who’s raising Michael’s son in his absence, while a mysterious benefactor offers Knepper’s T-Bag a state-of-the-art prosthesis to replace that ratty old hand he’d been wearing since losing the original.
The contrast of those last two threads offers the best example of where Prison Break lives and breathes. It is a combination of overwhelming familial obligation and a willingness to lean into the absurd as a get out of jail free card for some of the outlandish storytelling choices the series makes in order to keep things interesting. Frankly, it’s a little surprising the series hadn’t gone this route with T-Bag earlier, but considering the premise of the revival is centered on a seven-year conspiracy regarding Michael’s status as a not-so dead man, the idea of a robotic hand sort of pales in comparison.
But ‘Ogygia’ barely has time to notice. Instead, it’s too busy making allusions to The Odyssey, drawing a line from Michael’s prolonged absence from the world he knew, and especially his wife and child, by giving him the alias Kaniel Outis – which is the name of the terrorist Michael is posing as for reasons that remain unknown during the first hour. As the revival progresses, allusions to the epic poem increase until they too become a part of the show’s always-welcoming embrace of the absurd.
There are myriad questions raised by the premiere, many of which are connected to the distinct whiffs of a major conspiracy looping all the major players into the same game. By the first hour’s end, Lincoln is well on his way to uncovering the mystery of how his brother is still alive, while Sara is dealing with a bizarre home invasion, and T-Bag is fitted for a new hand… for reasons. Those questions help drive the plot, but there is one question ‘Ogygia’ fails to address. As the revival and reboot trend continues to resurrect series like The X-Files, 24, and Prison Break – as well as many others – it raises the question of essentialness more than anything else.
This era of Peak TV presents a challenge for anyone venturing into the business of scripted television, especially broadcast networks like FOX. With so much content out there vying for the same eyeballs, the decision to bring back what worked before and to repackage it as an “event” probably looks pretty good on paper. As is so often the case, creating buzz worthy content doesn’t necessarily translate into content that justifies its existence beyond causing a stir. That’s largely how Prison Break feels. Several hours into the latest event resurrection of a series that’s been in the ground for almost a decade will likely leave most viewers wondering what all the buzz was about.
Prison Break continues next Tuesday with ‘Kaniel Outis’ @8pm on FOX.