First out of the box: Fox
THE fall TV season officially begins on Sept. 18, but Fox kicks off its new line-up Monday at 8 p.m. with the sophomore return of “Prison Break” and what the network hopes will be another action-adventure, thrill-a-minute-mystery, “Vanished,” at 9 p.m. (“24" returns in January.)
SOPHOMORE year is typically easier in television -- the characters and stories are established, the actors and crew have grown accustomed to one another, the writers have become familiar with the nuances of the actors, and the fans are hungry for more.
Not on Fox’s “Prison Break.” The first season introduced viewers to Michael (Wentworth Miller), who robbed a bank so he would be incarcerated with his brother, Lincoln (Dominic Purcell), who had been framed for the murder of the brother of the vice president of the United States and was awaiting execution. Michael enlisted the help of seven other prisoners in carrying out his plan to break out of Fox River State Penitentiary to save his brother’s life. As the season unfolded, viewers learned of the elaborate political conspiracy that set up Lincoln to take the fall for a murder that never even took place. The vice president’s brother, it turned out, was alive and well and hiding in Montana.
In its May finale, the Fox River Eight finally broke out, and while that was good for the convicts, it posed an unusual conundrum for the writers and producers. Instead of basking in first-season hit glow, “Prison Break” is remaking itself. No longer set in the former Joliet Correctional Center in Illinois, which served as Fox River State Penitentiary, the second season is filmed in and around Dallas but set Everywhere and Anywhere because the eight escapees have different promises to keep and different scores to settle, from Connecticut to Panama to Sardinia. In other words, “Prison Break” is practically a brand new show.
“In Season 1, we put all of our characters in the same crucible and turned up the heat beneath them and saw how they all have different reactions to the pressure,” said creator and show runner Paul T. Scheuring. “They’re not just going to travel the country together in this big scrum. They have different agendas. “
Meaning, the eight former prisoners -- Michael and Lincoln, Sucre, C-Note, T-Bag, Abruzzi, Haywire and Tweener -- are wearing civilian clothes, running through woods, jumping on moving trains and traveling the country’s highways. It’s all part of Scheuring’s plan; his original pitch for the show included a two-season story arc that took the men to their respective corners.
“We’re just following the characters and what their end games are and what their emotional issues are,” Scheuring said. “We always knew where we were going to be in Season 2 in terms of story.”
In its new Texas setting, “Prison Break” has lost its intimate, claustrophobic feeling. The prisoners are on the run, the country’s vastness is at the disposal of the actors, and they say they are having the most fun they’ve had on the job. Just ask Purcell if he misses solitary confinement: “It’s a depressing, dank, miserable place. I hated it. But it certainly helped my performance come out. Season 2, I am stoked about.”
“It feels like a radically altered show,” Miller said, “and the experience for me has been completely reinvigorating. We are no longer in the prison, which we were lucky to have access to but which took its toll emotionally and psychologically working in that environment day after day, month after month. It got to you. It now feels like a completely different universe.”
So where is everybody going with prison guard Capt. Brad Bellick (Wade Williams), the corrupt Secret Service and FBI agent Mahone (a new character played by William Fichtner) at their heels? Well, as Scheuring tells it, Michael and Lincoln have several stops to make on their way to Panama; Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) wants to get to New York to stop his pregnant girlfriend from marrying his cousin; mob boss Abruzzi (Peter Stormare) is trying to flee the country; C-Note (Rockmund Dunbar) needs to get back to Chicago to his wife and daughter and quickly realizes he cannot stay there; Tweener (Lane Garrison) takes a cross-country journey; T-Bag, the murdering rapist, has unresolved romantic business, but his first priority is getting his hand reattached (Abruzzi cut it off in the season finale). And Haywire (Silas Weir Mitchell), the schizophrenic, has such grandiose escape plans that Scheuring declined to discuss them.
Knepper, whose T-Bag is the creepiest character on television, has moved his wife and son from Illinois to Dallas to be with him, which he says is helping him in his performance since both he and T-Bag are starting from scratch.
“I have to set up a home for my wife and child, and T-Bag is out in the world and his hand is cut off,” he said. “In the prison, he was one of the rulers of that kingdom and he was in control. Now he is in an uncontrolled area and for an actor, that’s better. When you’re out of your safety net you have more choices because you’re vulnerable.”
The new season begins only hours after the finale left off, with Michael, Lincoln, Sucre, Abruzzi and C-Note on the run together, and T-Bag, Haywire and Tweener each on his own. Soon everyone except the brothers separates.
“I’m working a lot of scenes alone right now, and I miss my boys,” Nolasco said. “Wentworth and I have that odd couple thing going on. You feel for these two. There’s a very heartfelt scene when we say goodbye to each other and people are going to freak. It’s feels like we’re breaking up.”
Follow the money
ALTHOUGH they may be far-flung because of their different agendas, the convicts have one thing in common: finding the $5 million that fellow con Charles Westmoreland (Muse Watson) confessed he had buried in Utah as he was dying in the season finale, just as he was about to escape with the gang.
“Everybody’s got a mission, but we have one thing that binds us together -- the money,” Nolasco said.
But Scheuring said not every escapee will be alive to fight for the cash. “The season is structured so that they phase in and out of each other’s lives,” he said. “A lot of people’s lives cross again, and more than two of them die. People are going to be very shocked with what happens. Very early on you’re going to realize that this is for keeps. The ramifications of the escape are quite serious, and they bit off way more than they anticipated when they did this thing. And they’re going to get paid back in spades, and they’re going to wish they could take it back.”
The deaths should not surprise the show’s fans, said Miller, pointing out the brutalities his character witnessed (a stabbing) and endured (two of his toes were cut off) during his first night in prison. “That’s the tone we established from the start,” Miller said. “I think that’s a wake-up call to the audience that this is the universe we’re going to be operating in and nobody’s safe. The first season we had the luxury of a real prison at the center of the story, and that provided all kinds of terrors and challenges and obstacles. Now, we’re on the run, and it’s our job to ratchet up the tension as high as possible, and that means killing people off from time to time.”
Brothers will be brothers
BEING out in the world will give viewers new insight into the relationship between Lincoln and his little brother. Last year, Michael called all the shots, using an elaborate tattoo, which covers his torso and arms, as a cheat sheet to the prison’s blueprints. On the run, Michael continues to turn to the tattoo for clues to places where he has stashed money, clothes and other important things they need for survival. But Lincoln’s street smarts may out-do Michael’s book smarts in the outside world.
“There’s a certain brutality to Lincoln, but at the same time, there’s a quality that seeks redemption,” Purcell said. “As an audience, we want Lincoln to succeed. We’re rebuilding a relationship before incarceration. There are moments where you see Lincoln and Michael laughing and bickering like siblings do.”
But Michael has a lot more than his brother’s safety on his mind. He is sad that Westmoreland died and he is ashamed of the way he manipulated the prison warden, a father figure, and the prison doctor, his love interest, to get what he wanted.
“Physically they are free, but emotionally and psychologically Michael is still behind bars,” Miller said. “There’s a lot back there that needs to be resolved, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael winds up behind bars again at some point.”
Of course, Scheuring, in the early planning stages of a third season, won’t discuss the future of the brothers who are the heart of his first TV series. But if “Prison Break,” which averaged 9 million viewers and was the season’s No. 2 new drama, continues to succeed, Scheuring will be facing similar challenges next year. “The idea is for every year to reinvent the entire structure of the show.”
Miller thinks he has it figured it out: “I have a dark sense of humor sometimes, and I’ve always suspected that the last shot of the series would be Michael behind bars because even if he does manage to clear his brother’s name and unravel the government conspiracy, he did, in fact, rob a bank.”