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T.V. on TV: Prison Break, 3 Lbs., & Countdown with Keith Olbermann

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T.V. on TV: <em>Prison Break</em>, <em>3 Lbs.</em>, & <em>Countdown with Keith Olbermann</em>

Fox’s Prison Break (Mondays at 8 EST) started last year as a completely insane blend of MacGyver and 1930s prison movies. While its obvious forebear 24 often ignores its obvious plot holes, Prison Break cheerfully made the most of them. It was all testosterone and no brain, buoyed along by a superb central performance by Wentworth Miller (who could do wonders with a more fully-developed role) as Michael Scofield, who was emotionally unavailable, incredibly good-looking and, apparently, the smartest man on Earth. It was also helped by an interesting structure that broke its serialized story into episode-sized pieces. In every episode, Michael put together another piece of the giant puzzle tattoed on his body, inching closer to his season-ending escape attempt; this gave the series a feeling of forward progress, even when nothing, really, was happening. Michael and seven other convicts broke out at the end of the first season, and the second season has been, at various intervals, about their attempts to commandeer the mini-fortune D.B. Cooper absconded with in the 1970s, their attempts to resume their normal lives and their effort to expose a massive government conspiracy (a topic that’s currently en vogue for TV producers on seemingly every network). But if the first season of Prison Break was a mostly enjoyable guilty pleasure, its second season has been, by turns, uninteresting, unbelievable and unwatchable.

One of the series’ two aces is still firmly in hand—Miller is still turning in a greatly agreeable performance, but it’s just less interesting to watch his MacGyver antics on the outside, and on occasion, Michael’s seemed kind of stupid too, as when he spent an entire episode trying to move a log pinning his friend’s foot to the bed of a river, only to realize (at the appropriate moment in the episode) that, yes, there was a rope dangling from a tree off to the side of the river, and perhaps he could use said rope (combined with a motorcycle, of course) to budge the log just enough to free his friend. Michael’s powers of perception have been played up as well-nigh extrasensory so often that his not seeing a rope just made him seem dumb. I could have come up with that solution—it’s not on par with using a drawing of the devil to create a handful of tiny holes that would destroy an entire section of wall, as he did during Prison Break’s first season.

But the series has fallen apart on another level as well: it has come to believe that its characters are interesting to the viewer as human beings, rather than as vehicles to advance the plot. When the show started, it took the various “types” familiar to anyone who’s seen any prison movie ever (the old codger who knows the lay of the land, the guy who can get things, the mobster, the sadistic warden) and threw every single one of them into the mix with Michael, who was the closest thing the show had to an original character (though, as mentioned, he’s basically MacGyver crossed with Jack Bauer). Throughout, it was obvious that these characters didn’t have much meat on their bones (an attempt at a flashback episode in season one, which showed us how all of them got to be in prison, was one of the worst hours of television of last season), but you sort of went with it, as they fit their milieu. Sure, they were spouting awful dialogue, but it felt true to the material’s B-movie roots.

Now that these characters are out among the general populace, though, their actions and thought processes feel completely alien to the world we’re living in. In another recent episode, C-Note (Rockmond Dunbar) reunited with his family by setting up a convoluted system of switch-offs that any police officer should have been able to see coming a mile away. The whole completely unrealistic sequence felt like needless busywork intended mainly to fill out an episode. An even worse series of twists has been visited on the race for the money. The series’ big cliffhanger (before it went away for a baseball-induced hiatus) was that reliable, loyal Sucre (Amaury Nolesco) apparently snapped and took the money for himself after pointing a gun at the other convicts. In the real world, would any of these people have bought Sucre’s sudden change of personality at all? Of course, it turned out to be part of Michael’s scheme (he united with Sucre later), but the characters’ failure to even be surprised by Sucre’s behavior spoke to their need to do so to keep the plot chugging along.

Even worse than the characters we’re asked to believe in as something approaching real human beings is the show’s one completely amoral character, T-Bag (Robert Knepper). Knepper’s portrayal of T-Bag is harrowingly well-done; the character’s lack of a moral compass combined with Knepper’s odd charisma made him interesting enough in Season One. But now that the pedophile/murderer has rejoined the outside world, the actions that seemed agreeably villainous behind bars now seem over-the-top and morally repellent. This might be all right if T-Bag were played as an out-and-out villain, but the writers of the show know that Knepper has won the audience over, and they write T-Bag’s various killings (of a veterinarian and a man whose car he needed) as moments they almost seem to want the audience to cheer. T-Bag’s rapscallion nature and ability to finagle his way out of any situation make him seem an almost charming con man (think of Lost’s Sawyer), but the man is a murderer and a pedophile! We’re never asked to consider T-Bag’s repugnance, only to cheer him on as he absconds with the money, pity him as he’s taped to a toilet and fed various laxatives (no, really) and enjoy his zany quips and his attempts to avenge his imprisonment. If T-Bag existed in our world, he would be one of the most abhorrent individuals alive. On Prison Break, though, he’s just another misunderstood escapee.

Finally, the show treats its many, many characters as chess pieces, nothing more, even as it tries to deepen and expand them to no avail. On Lost and 24, a character’s death may be treated as a big shocker, designed to goose ratings, but they are also granted a certain amount of gravity; Jack Bauer will take a moment to mourn a fallen colleague or the Lost-ies will hold a funeral. On Prison Break, the characters are gunned down in a hail of bullets, little attention paid to them afterward. Obviously, when the characters are such stereotypical ciphers, it’s hard to add depth that isn’t there, even in death; but the character deaths on Prison Break are treated as shocks and nothing else (the episode featuring the first death was actually titled “One Down”). We’re expected to see these various plot machinations as proof of the producers’ bravery (they’ll actually kill off their characters!), but they seem like little more than attempts to get our blood racing; they lack emotional or moral context, and therefore can’t give us much beyond a visceral thrill.

There’s stuff that still works on Prison Break (I’m still fond of the storyline about Haywire, played by Silas Weir Mitchell, a mentally ill escapee who appears to be setting sail for the Netherlands with a big floppy hat, recently acquired dog at his side—but mostly because it’s so utterly ridiculous), and Miller’s performance can gloss over a lot of sins (as can the recent cast addition William Fichtner, as a sort of shadow Michael), but this is a show that has stopped trying to make sense (how, exactly, was Sarah, played by Sarah Wayne Callies, able to figure out a code that the government’s best took days to crack with its best cryptography experts and computers?), and enjoying it on any level other than so-bad-its-good seems, well, criminal.

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Hey. How much do you like House? CBS hopes you like it so much that you’re willing to sit through a virtual carbon copy right afterward. Its latest new drama, 3 Lbs, a midseason replacement rushed up to November sweeps after Smith underperformed, airs at 10 p.m. EST on Tuesdays, right after House ends on Fox, and it’s obvious that CBS is hoping that show’s fans will change channels. Starring Stanley Tucci as the embattled, bitter doctor that Hugh Laurie plays brilliantly on House, 3 Lbs. is, well, House clumsily cross-bred with ER and stuck in a neurosurgery lab. What’s more, the show steals one of the best elements of St. Elsewhere—the idea that the hospital it takes place in is rundown and past its prime (even if the neurology lab is state-of-the-art). The only significant medical shows of the past 20 years that this show doesn’t seem heavily influenced by are Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy.

House succeeds in its procedural format largely because its medical mysteries are still interesting. The show has the whole human body to play with, and it makes use of as many misdirects as it can find. Laurie’s performance keeps the show humming along, and the other actors are well-cast to be perfect types for Laurie to bounce off of. What’s more, the dialogue is crisp, the put-downs are withering, and the scripts occasionally engage in bargain-rate philosophy that seems deeper than it is thanks to the solid performances. 3 Lbs is about as exact a copy of this formula as you’re likely to see, and Tucci is always a fun actor to watch, but there’s little here that raises to any level beyond pure TV pulp. While the idea of showing the patients of the week struggling within their mind to overcome the mental disorder of the week is interesting (an image of a girl literally trying in vain to reach the words she wants to use in the pilot is particularly well-conceived), it’s not enough to overcome an already rigorous format (somebody gets a tumor in their brain, and that tumor makes them perceive the world in an odd way). How long, exactly, can a premise this limited keep up, especially when the series looks poised to burn off three storylines per episode, like an extremely specific ER?

What’s more, the show has generally uninteresting performances from the players around Tucci (a rivalry between Tucci and another neurosurgeon is a snooze) and a penchant for cringe-inducing concepts and dialogue that will make the viewer cringe (a character wakes up at 9:11 and regards this as a bad omen; another character says he wants to get to know the soul he’ll be digging around in during surgery). You’ve seen this played so much better on House that you might as well just watch the real thing.

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Keith Olbermann’s ratings are surging, largely because of a series of special comments he’s been doing at the end of Countdown with Keith Olbermann (8 p.m. ET weeknights, MSNBC). The special comments have popped up on YouTube and other Internet sites (like the left-leaning Crooks & Liars), and their largely Bush-administration-bashing content have had their transcripts posted to Internet forums hither and yon. While I have largely agreed with what Olbermann has said in content, the performance of his special comments leaves a little to be desired. They obscure the rest of his program, which is often a snidely funny look at the events of the day—The Daily Show with more serious news content. But they’re also delivered in a real attempt to capture the deeply serious intonations of Edward R. Murrow, one of Olbermann’s heroes. This self-seriousness does not suit Olbermann well. Being stentorian just doesn’t fit him very well, and his real attempts to tie in his comments to a larger body of broadcast journalism (to wit, ending a commentary with “Good night and good luck,” as Murrow did) often feel forced and self-serving.

Make no mistake: Olbermann can write and write well. His pieces are artfully conceived to destroy pieces of logic from the administration that he finds galling, and they function well as mini-debates. Delivered by someone else, they might be as powerful as they read on the page. But Olbermann is too much the rake. One of his strongest suits is his impish smile, cultivated when he was still on SportsCenter (during its finest years) and honed to perfection on Countdown. When he drops the wryness, the show seems to run out of gas. The special comments work against the rest of the show, and they work against what we know of Olbermann’s persona. I don’t think Olbermann should stop delivering them, as he’s one of the few speaking in such unvarnished terms in the cable TV news world, but his delivery could use a bit more of that sardonic persona and a bit less of the glum.

House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.