Almost everyone loved Prison Break: namely seasons 1 and 2, by general consensus. From then on, you might conclude, it was all downhill--starting with the half-length season 3 and ending with a train wreck known as Season Four.
But, as I'm about to show, the train wreck really must be called the Final Season, not the Fourth. And by the time I'm finished, if you're a fan of 1 and 2, you'll want to view the real 4 in a hurry...and I'll tell you where to to see it. You may even see the flawed third season in a different light.
Prison Break began as the darling of viewers and critics alike. Though it made for brutal viewing, it offered great characters, production values, scripting and acting. Its real problems began with USA Today's TV critic, Robert Bianco, who took a vehement dislike to it and ridiculed it relentlessly as a bloated epic that should have been made as it was originally pitched: a five-episode mini series. According to Bianco, greed alone compelled the producers to stretch it out year after year.
Stop right there. Producer Paul Scheuring makes clear in the DVD extras that PB was pitched and always meant to be a five-year epic. And each season would have its own feel. 1: something like Escape from Alcatraz. 2: something like The Great Escape. 3: a dark riff on 1--with the cons re-imprisoned in a brutal new joint...to break out the mysterious Whistler. 4: something like Ocean's 11--with the re-escaped then captured cons forced by Special Agent Self to find and steal six Company cards. 5: something like the Bourne Idendity with the betrayed cons out to bring down the Company.
But by Season 3, cancellation rumours grew in frequency and volume. 3 itself was put on a short leash, the writers and cast scrambling to pull it off in only 13 episodes. Budget too seems to have been greatly reduced--the prison looks hopelessly fake. And the combination of second-rate effects and truncated length caused viewers to see it as a failure. It was not--but we'll come back to that in a minute.
Thank Bianco again for what happened next. Though viewer rebellion forced the network to grant the show one final season, the producers found themselves in a hopeless situation: under no circumstances could they stop the show at the end of season 4. They owed their fans a good deal more than that--and they also owed the show. What to do?
They cut the intended lengths in half, then spliced the two together.
And where is the real fourth season? Episodes 1 through 12, ending with 'Selfless'--in which the cons run headlong into the Big Reveal: Don Self is a murdering s.o.b., who's played every one of them and is now the proud owner of Scylla. But in the splicing of two seasons, the sensational impact is lost and we move on immediately from Ocean's 11 to Bourne.
I've just finished watching the real season 4. At the end of the 12th episode, I set the disc aside, wanting a break--as I would have enjoyed if there had been a fifth season. I wanted a break to recover from the impact of what I had seen: a lost masterpiece, recovered. 12 episodes were all that were needed to give us one hell of a story:
--Six cards are ingeniously stolen.
--Alex Mahone hunts the assassin who murdered his son--and transforms from a strung-out villain to a sympathetic and heroic figure.
--At the same time, the assassin Wyatt hunts down Alex and the others, with orders to wipe out them all.
--Don Self proves as dangerous as the other villains combined--but with his own tragic back story.
--Greta equals T-Bag the show's star psycho.
This season also contains what I believe is its single most powerful moment. In episode 6, Blow Out, Mahone is caught and arraigned...but tracked to court by Wyatt. Not one line of dialogue. But not one line is needed. William Fichtner says it all with his face, conveying a dozen emotions--from rage to blood lust to fear to despair.
The producers and writers worked wonders in condensing 4 to 12 episodes. And in separating it from 5, as we should, the shortened season 3 no longer seems like a freak.
Do yourselves a favour and view season 4 as it's meant to be seen. Then let's all take a break and see if season 5 holds up.