Give the producers of this Fox action series credit, as they keep pulling improbable rabbits out of an increasingly bizarre — yet nevertheless entertaining — array of hats. After escaping the prison in year one, spending season two on the run and killing off numerous characters, the show returns with half the cast sequestered in a Panama prison so warped and depraved as to resemble “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.” Silly but undeniably fun, this is fast becoming one of TV’s guiltiest “check your brain at the door” pleasures, thanks largely to a flinty cast led by the steely-eyed Wentworth Miller.
Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the two brothers at the show’s heart — having survived a jail break and plot to kill them reaching up to the President of the United States — land themselves in the center of what appears to be another elaborate conspiracy, thus qualifying as the unluckiest TV family ever.
This time, however, it’s Michael (Miller) who finds himself behind bars, in a prison so bleak that the authorities have pulled back and are simply allowing the inmates, literally, to run the asylum. That puts the scary Lechero (Robert Wisdom, brilliant in HBO’s “The Wire,” and pretty damn good here) in charge, laying down harsh rules for settling disputes of the “Two men enter, one man leaves” variety, and not trusting the new arrivals.
Most interestingly, the writers use the back-to-season-one template not only to live up to the title but to tinker with shifting alliances, with FBI Agent Alex Mahone (the terrific William Fichtner) — who had been Javert to Michael’s Jean Valjean — now trapped in the same prison, forcing him to try mending fences in order to survive. (Shot in Texas, the show’s over-the-top setting probably won’t do much to improve U.S.-Panamanian relations, though it should help eradicate jokes about Turkish prisons dating back to “Midnight Express.”)
As always, the real proof here will be whether the series can keep dipping into the same bag of tricks without becoming ridiculous and caving in under the weight, which finally happened toward the end of last season. Nevertheless, the second go-round of “Prison Break” was ultimately far more satisfying than the ludicrous, disjointed sixth season of “24,” and two episodes in the show appears to have lost none of its kinetic energy.
So sit back, give in, and be very thankful that you’re not watching this in a Central American prison.