Emboldened by the durability of “24,” Fox trots out two serials this fall that, in success, will be difficult to extend into a second season. “Prison Break” is the more intriguing of these sha-la-la-live-for-today dramas (the other being “The OC”-like “Reunion”), thanks principally to a strong cast led by Wentworth Miller, who purposely gets tossed into prison hoping to spring his death-row brother. Still, emulating “24’s” delicate balancing act is full of potential tripwires, and the surplus of moving parts in the two-hour premiere doesn’t make entirely clear how “Break” will escape triggering them.
The audacity of the concept owes a debt to any number of features, from “Escape From Alcatraz” and even “Nevada Smith” to “The Shawshank Redemption,” which is doubtless playing somewhere on cable at this very moment. There certainly is something enticing about stretching an escape caper over 20-some episodes, with all the hoped-for suspense that entails.
Initially, though, there’s so much setup in Paul Scheuring’s script that even in the hands of director Brett Ratner the opening hour leaves more questions than answers. Convinced his brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) is innocent of murdering the vice president’s brother, Michael (Miller) gets himself thrown into the same facility, armed with a structural blueprint of the prison. Once inside, he begins to establish connections with everyone from a Mob boss (Peter Stormare, at his sneering best) to an aged inmate (Muse Watson) rumored to be legendary robber D.B. Cooper.
Plenty happens outside, too, with defense attorney Veronica (Robin Tunney), Lincoln’s former girlfriend, digging into his case, which hints at a conspiracy as yet unidentified. The first hour introduces Lincoln’s teen son (Marshall Allman), who might be steering off the straight and narrow without a proper adult role model.
Thus far, easily the most compelling element is Miller, who with his steely intensity conveys a guy capable of outwitting, outlasting and outplaying whatever the prison and its gruff warden (Stacy Keach, billed as a guest star) can throw at him. That said, for all the talk about his infallible plan, Michael seems unprepared for the brutality he encounters, from the racial strife that develops to Robert Knepper’s predatory inmate T-Bag, a name that wins no points for subtlety.
Fox was well advised to premiere the show in a two-hour format, sinking the hook in a little deeper. Yet even with the premiere sprinkling enough tantalizing bread crumbs to warrant a return visit, there’s insufficient evidence as to how the more muddled aspects will unfold over future installments.
By getting an early start in what was previously “24’s” cellblock, “Prison Break” should have ample opportunity to lock up an audience before the big guns arrive in its timeslot, but it needs to begin peeling away the layers more quickly. Otherwise, this early bird can tease viewers for only so long before many opt to make their own kind of break — to “Las Vegas,” “Monday Night Football” or “Two and a Half Men.”