Sunday, June 6, 2010
The Prisoner (2009)
A few years back, AMC announced they would be filming a remake of The Prisoner, the single season cult classic 1960s British import starring Patrick McGoohan as a spy who resigns and is taken against his will to a mysterious but charming resort called The Village where everyone seems to be content but him. He wants his freedom. They want his information. Every show ends in stalemate.
The announcement said the new version would be a six episode mini-series. The hero Number Six would be played by Jim Caviezel and his nemesis Number Two would be portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen.
Well, I thought, that's half a piece of good news, which has to be better than none.
It turned out to be no good news at all.
The modern version of The Prisoner is a re-imagining, not a remake. Like the most recent versions of Battlestar Galactica, Alice in Wonderland and Star Trek, the latest version of The Prisoner bears little resemblance to the original. If you actually liked the original, you have a natural resentment to the new version built in from the beginning.
The original TV series was a remarkable breath of fresh air. James Bond had single-handedly created a new genre of spy movies and TV shows, much in the same way The Maltese Falcon had created the hard-boiled detective genre some twenty years earlier. There were rip-offs of Bond, there were spoofs of Bond, and it even opened the door for John LeCarré and others to create spy entertainment that wasn't just hot chicks, beautiful locales and suave villains. The Prisoner turned the genre on its head, portraying a man in an oddly cheerful dystopia, questioning what it means to be free and why a free society needs to keep secrets.
The modern version of The Prisoner has no such claim to originality. In the late sixties, paranoia as popular entertainment felt new. Now, it feels very close to being played out. Besides ripping off small details from the original show, The Prisoner also feels like a re-hash of Lost, Dollhouse, Fringe, The X Files and a lot of other TV shows and movies that are frankly better written.
As always, the writing is where it starts, and this show felt stale very early on. It started slow, but by the third episode I had hopes it would get better. The fourth episode dashed those hopes but I plowed ahead anyway. The end of the show was somewhat clever, but how it got there was remarkably unsatisfying.
Then there's The Village. In the original show, The Village was like an extra character, an interesting place that the viewer might well like to visit. It may not have been quite as remarkable to British viewers, since it was in Wales, but to Americans it was definitely exotic and charming. The new version of The Village looks like a tract home hell hole stuck in the middle of the desert. You very soon get the idea that Number Six is not the only discontent in this place and there is no charm in this dystopia.
Speaking of no charm brings us naturally to Jim Caviezel. I have never connected with a character played by Jim Caviezel. He has all the dumb earnestness of Kevin Costner without any of the likability or ease with an occasional smart ass quip. In The Prisoner, he's supposed to be the Smartest Guy In The Room. If he's that, it's a pretty dumb room.
And at last, we come to Sir Ian McKellan, not the worst part of the show but easily the biggest disappointment. He's usually as good or better than the material, but in this role, being Sir Ian McKellan got in the way. His version of Number Two has a family, a wife in a coma that he is prolonging with drugs he feeds her and a very pretty young son who turns out to be gay. As the audience, we fully expect that nothing is what it seems in The Village, so it is a distinct possibility that neither the wife or son are actually related to him. Given that the character of the son is gay and the actor Sir Ian is openly gay, anyone paying attention has to consider the possibility that Number Two is keeping the young man around for other reasons. That story line does NOT come to pass, and as creepy as it is, there are other story lines nearly as creepy that do come true. If the actor playing Number Two was not openly gay, like Patrick Stewart or Kenneth Brannagh, that unneeded distraction wouldn't be there.
The final scene of the new version of The Prisoner leaves open the possibility of continuing the story, and I hope that no one succumbs to the temptation. Six episodes was quite enough, thanks, and the writers and actors are just not up to the task.