In true Prison Break form, the first episode of its revival turned out to be a divisive one. Critics, for the most part, hated it, while fans viewed it much more warmly, as you perhaps might expect for a revival of a cult show that was never a critical favourite at even the height of its creative powers. After gloomy predictions, it actually ended up a ratings success, too. Wherever side you came down on the fence, it’s clear that Prison Break’s return evoked some strong feelings. For better or for worse, it got people talking. In an age of 500+ shows, that’s not insignificant. But can Prison Break 2.0 stay relevant as the novelty wears off?
Kaniel Outis is a different beast in many ways to its predecessor. It’s set primarily in the war-torn city of Sana’a in Yemen rather than Vancouver masquerading as upstate New York, swapping out leafy suburbs for dusty, cracked vistas of desolation. It’s also different in how it sits down to spend a significant amount of time with Michael, after he spent almost the entirety of the premiere hiding behind a curtain, waiting for its entrance. Yet in many other ways, it’s a natural continuation. Its pacing is hyperactive, there’s a logically puzzling action set-piece, and the plot is more convoluted than ever. As sweeping a critical statement as this sounds: if you liked the first episode of Prison Break, you’ll probably like this one. There’s no gear change here.
It may come as no great surprise that Michael’s primary objective when we catch up with him here is to break out of prison. He’s doing this, seemingly, because it’s what his character does. In that respect, we’re in very familiar territory here, and it’s where Kaniel Outis feels the most like a reskinned version of Prison Break’s greatest hits. The same building blocks of this plotline are as they’ve been in prior seasons: the thinly-sketched breakout crew, the impossibly intricate plan, the subterfuge around oblivious guards.
It’s gently entertaining in the way it echoes Prison Break’s nuts-and-bolts glory days of Michael assembling his masterplan to escape from Fox River, but that’s it – it’s an echo. Michael himself doesn’t fare very well, either. Wentworth Miller could play this role in his sleep and still be engaging in his enigmatic, chilly way, but Michael’s characterisation squanders Miller’s performance, forcing him to spout riddle after riddle as Michael describes his agenda in the vaguest terms imaginable. It was fun, once, to know that our lead character was ten steps ahead of us in the audience.
Now, with so many chessmaster characters on TV, the convoluted methods of withholding information that will be a shock reveal later on for no emotionally realistic reason are frustrating, not compelling. Future episodes would do better to tap into the actual layers of the character beyond the sole attribute he’s most popular for.
Meanwhile, Lincoln and C-Note have their own mission to contend with, and it’s one that sends the show careering into some sticky territory. The creators insisted that this revival wouldn’t make a political statement – that it’s just here to be enjoyable escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with that conceptually. Yet setting the show amidst the Yemeni civil war, and making so-called Islamic State terrorists prominent villains, is a statement in of itself, and it’s not really one that Prison Break seems to know it’s making. Its conception of Yemen is vague and thin, defined solely by (a being dangerous and (b full of terrorists.
It’s the FOX News version of the Middle East, one that refuses ever to engage with specifics and merely just throws in some pervasive stereotypes of a war-torn country and the terrorists that threaten it. Add to that the optics of, for instance, Lincoln the American winning over the locals by bribing them consistently with US dollars, and it paints an unflattering picture of this show’s writing. There’s room for stories about hot-button issues of terrorism and radicalisation, but that requires finesse and nuance, to go beyond the narratives of cable news and Call of Duty. Prison Break, for all of its good intentions, doesn’t have that finesse, and it ends up playing into some ugly stereotypes.
As with Ogygia, Kaniel Outis is a tightly-paced episode that knows when to throw out an intriguing twist for a burst of energy whenever its narrative becomes bogged down. There are some really enjoyable moments to be found here – the return of another original character to the series is narratively inessential, but genuinely fun in a way this grim-and-gritty revival isn’t always. The cast remain engaging, too, although Dominic Purcell’s straight-man action hero shtick feels like a waste of the actor’s talents after his great work on Legends of Tomorrow this season.
Yet this is an episode that seems unmoored, playing it too safe on one hand while dipping into touchy subject matter on the other with the subtlety of a jackhammer. Prison Break is trying to tell something rich and compelling here, and sometimes it crops through in its exploration of game theory and how that cold, rational worldview is reflected in the agendas of these characters. Yet it can’t overcome its addictions to tired tropes and lazy narrative shortcuts designed for a cheap moment of excitement, as evidenced in a lousy cliffhanger that reflects badly on the show’s ability to take weighty topics seriously.
In all likelihood, you might have drawn your line in the sand on this revival already. If you’re finding it an exciting burst of nostalgia with actors and characters you enjoy, then Kaniel Outis will probably be a satisfying second chapter to you, and that’s a reasonable viewpoint to take. Yet for those viewers who aren’t on board, Kaniel Outis provides no real reasons for you to suddenly hop on. Prison Break knows who it’s pleasing, but the limits of TV made solely for the fans is becoming clearer by the minute.
Kaniel Outis airs on FOX on Tuesday at 9/8C.