Friday, January 15, 2016

24 and Prison Break are coming back. What do they need to be good?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 15, 2016 at 3:55 PM

click to enlarge Looks like some unlucky federal agent will have to pull an all-nighter.
  • Looks like some unlucky federal agent will have to pull an all-nighter.

Good news, fans of manly nostalgia!

Today Fox announced it was moving forward with plans to resurrect canceled series Prison Break and 24. Kiefer Sutherland will not return as Jack Bauer, Fox said. But Flash-duo Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller will, despite Miller's Michael Scofield character seemingly having died at the end of the series. Neither show has a pilot, yet, but so far, signs are looking good for both shows to return. 

This would be more exciting news, of course, if 24 and Prison Break hadn't both become really awful series in their final seasons.(24, of course, popped its head up again two years ago with 24: Live Another Day, a series that only had 12 episodes. "I'm federal agent Jack Bauer, and this day is relatively short in comparison." It was a return to form.)

But there's nothing stopping Fox from Making 24 and Prison Break great again, providing they can find a suitably raspy Bauer replacement. 

Here's what each show needs to do: 

24

Show us fatigue. Show us the cost of 24 hours of fighting, shooting, running, stabbing. Have the hero struggling to keep his, or her, eyes open. Or to think straight as the season ebbs on. Show us the desperation in their eyes. Show stubble. Show hunger and thirst. Show the need to use the bathroom. 

Don't torture. 
Or if you must, show it leading the hero down the wrong path. There remains a debate over whether torture can be effective or not, but most agree that a "ticking timebomb scenario" is exactly the area where torture doesn't work. More to the point, it often feels like a narrative cheat. There isn't anything particularly interesting about seeing a hero slap or beat or electrocute a terrorist suspect. Seeing him negotiate? Seeing him trying to strike deals, to press upon a suspect's desires for safety, money, or protection? That's interesting.  

Let the inconvenience of logistics work FOR the show: 
24 has often been mocked for having Jack Bauer get across L.A. — a city infamous for traffic jams — within only a few minutes. Now, a story being "realistic" should always take a back seat to a story being propulsive and interesting. But 24's ticking-clock conceit can turn things as simple as a traffic jam, a lost cell-phone signal, a delayed flight, slow WiFi or an Out Of Office email reply into nail-biting intensity. Things shouldn't be easy for our hero. Things should go wrong. And if they're the same things that go wrong ... 

Let the effects of terrorism linger: 
In Season 6, a suitcase nuke was detonated in Los Angeles. And then... Los Angeles promptly forgot about it. If a terror attack is successful, it should change the whole rest of the season. Flights should be grounded, people should be panicked and misinformation should be flooding in. 

Model the political dialogue after West Wing/Scandal:
West Wing did something amazing. It took incredibly boring topics about the minutia of politics, and turned them into spellbinding conversations, full of rapid-fire back-and-forths and witty banter. Scandal often did the same. But 24 did the opposite. What is more exciting than how a president responds to a terror attack? Yet the dialogue was so dull, wrapped in press-release-level nothings of the "I refuse to negotiate with terrorists" variety. Hire a writer who can write an actual argument, not just an action scene or recitation of talking points, and the political subplots will feel less like wheel-treading and more like the main attraction. 

Prison Break

Give us archetypes. Prison Break's greatest strength was its caricatures. No, that's not a typo. Prison Break, in its first season especially, relied on characters with broad vibrant stereotypes like a mafioso and a sleazy fast-talking southerner, and handed the actors an all-you-can-eat buffet of scenery chewing. In doing so, it separated itself from its bland and ponderous copycat series. Even in its weaker second season, investigator Alexander Mahone played with twitchy obsession by William Fichtner, was a standout highlight. 

If you simply must have conspiracies, let them be simple ones. The conspiracy plotlines will always the weakest part of Prison Break, but they didn't have to be. A good conspiracy relies on a simple, clear-cut motivation: A powerful person and his buddies want X to happen, or don't want Y to happen, therefore they do something relatively sensible and uncomplicated to make that happen. Once that is laid out clearly, then the character motivation becomes about exposing the conspiracy when powerful people are aligned against you. Clarity, typically, makes for much more propulsive television than confusion. 

Make the obstacles crystal clear: A great heist movie almost always has a montage. Here are the obstacles you have to get past to pull of the heist. Here are the guards, here are the retinal scanners, here's the laser grid, here's the uncrackable safe. By doing so, the fun becomes seeing the smart thieves tackle each challenge, and then improvise when something goes wrong. 

This was what made Prison Break's first season, so effective. We knew what hero Michael Scofield had to do in order to escape. And so when a setback — an errant pipe blocking an exit, say — popped up, we knew just how serious it was. Later seasons meandered because, well, neither the audience nor the writers had outlined the precise obstacles Scofield had to overcome. 
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