Tuned In: 'The Prisoner'

AMC debuts ambitious remake of '60's series

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It takes a village to keep a community of souls together, goes the common thinking, and the examples are all around us here -- Old Economy, Harmony, Zoar, Ohio, even Chatham Village. Pleasant places for industrious, law-abiding folks.

There are other villages in America as well that are not so pleasant, the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, for instance.

It's that sense of official repression hanging over the funky little "Village" of the original "The Prisoner" series in 1967 that made it a bit of a cult hit at a time when paranoia about government was on the rise.

Questions were popping up then about the Kennedy assassination, the nature of the war in Vietnam and the nasty spy business of the Cold War. The British-made program caught the crest of the wave.

It's now been ambitiously revived by AMC and two English producers and will be broadcast over three consecutive nights on the cable network starting today at 8 p.m. In truth, this "Prisoner" is so ambitious that only the numbers and the premise have stayed the same. Fans of the original might just as well content themselves with watching reruns.

Those fans do know that the characters are called by their number, not name. In 1967, this concept was an Orwellian shocker. In these days of PINS and security codes, it's no big deal.

The setup for "The Prisoner" is also a little shopworn: Guy wakes up in a strange place and doesn't understand why he's there. From there on, the two versions diverge, with the new one stumbling from one cul de sac to another. With such studied ambiguity and Lewis Carroll nonsense, "The Prisoner" resembles not so much its inspiration, but another 1960s artifact, the irritatingly obtuse nouvelle vague classic, "Last Year at Marienbad."

The puzzling 1962 film was written by Alain Robbe-Grillet and nothing says enigmatic more than Robbe-Grillet whose baffling exercise in cinematic unreality continues to be taken seriously by pretentious filmmakers like the Brits who produced this new "Prisoner."

We shan't fault them for their casting, however, led by the superb Ian McKellen as the village boss man labeled No. 2. He takes smug, self-satisfied delight in verbally torturing and abusing No. 6, a grim, sweaty Jim Caviezel, sentenced to "The Village" after quitting his spy post at a chillingly created surveillance firm.

Bright young British things Hayley Atwell and Ruth Wilson (despite her unattractive overbite) provide the sexual frisson. Atwell caught the critics' eye in "Brideshead Revisited;" Wilson captivated "Masterpiece Theater" watchers as Jane Eyre.

Over six hours, "The Prisoner" tests our patience, demands too much of our attention and spends far too many minutes aboard a bus bouncing around the vast sand dunes of Namibia. Taking a page from the Robbe-Grillet playbook, director Nick Hurran and writer Bill Gallagher juggle that deconstructionist time-space continuum playground, double up a few characters and cause us to ask, "Haven't we seen this already?"

Gallagher adds to the confusion by teasing that old father-son dynamic, questions whether massive government spying is really so terrible and writes several plot lines that go awry.

The conclusion is that a great cast and a singular location can't carry a scattershot script that goes in and out of focus.

The novelty of the original, while it wore off quickly, made 1967 viewers see more than what was really there. The failure of its spawn is that while it gives us so much to look at, there's really nothing to see.

Contact Bob Hoover at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. First Published November 15, 2009 5:00 AM


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