The Prisoner Didn't Hold Us Captive

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Except for the eleventy million reruns we'll be subjected to over the next few weeks, AMC's The Prisoner is over. The best thing that I can say about it is that I don't feel strongly one way or the other about the fact that it's over. Mostly, the six-episode, three-night miniseries was a suggestion of what could have been—it had the premise, the production value, and the cast of an important and deeply fascinating Television Event, but it never quite got there.

For those who missed it, The Prisoner begins as Six (James Caviezel) wakes up in the desert, with no idea where he is. He soon discovers that he is a resident of The Village—a desert oasis simultaneously reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange and The Truman Show. According to the Village's numerically named residents, it is the only place in the entire world. But Six knows he is from New York, and can remember his life there. He insists on leaving the Village, but the Village's leader, Two, insists that isn't possible. The series is about Six's struggle against Two to discover what and where the Village is, and how to escape.

Sir Ian McKellen's Two is really the major selling point here. We learn that Two is more of a title than a name, and that he is the closest thing the Village has to a ruler. His portrayal makes Two both abhorrent and sympathetic, and the performance and characterization are far better than anything else the show has to offer. When he's not on screen, there's not much happening in the Village other than some impressive set design.

The most extraordinary aspect of the Village, aside from the art direction, is that no one answers questions. When Six shouts his questions, over and over ad infinitum, characters from cab drivers to first dates either disregard them, respond with a question of their own, or just completely ignore him. Ultimately, this tendency reveals itself as a way to generate suspense without working too hard. If I repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to find out something mundane, like what time it was, the not knowing would eventually make the answer seem more important than it was.

Still, The Prisoner is sort of interesting—it just doesn't feel fully developed. Its condensing of the 17-part original into a six-episode miniseries may have filled the shorter interval with more action, but it also meant that some things were glossed over, and others ignored altogether. Which is perhaps why, when the true nature of the Village was revealed last night, it felt anticlimactic. I won't give it away less than 24 hours after it aired, but let's just say that if Lost turns out to have a similar ending, there will be global riots.

Perhaps it's the medium. Miniseries used to be event television, but that was when there was nothing else on. Now, during November sweeps, six hours over three nights is an astronomical commitment. Watching so much of the same show, knowing I would have to write about it today, made it feel like work. (Which it technically was, but still.) This is partly because the show itself wasn't compelling enough, and partly because of the schedule. I wonder whether I'd feel differently if AMC had aired The Prisoner only once a week, spacing it out over three or even six Sundays. Two summers ago, Generation Kill aired on a weekly schedule, and it felt like more of an appointment you wanted to keep than one you felt obligated to show up for.

But even though The Prisoner was disappointing, I certainly don't wish it hadn't aired. It may not be up to the quality of AMC's other original programming, but it's worth seeing—if only because McKellen is rarely ever on television. It's simply too bad that the rest of the series wasn't as good as he was.

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