Correction to This Article
The article said that the 1967 television series "The Prisoner" was photographed in black and white. The series was shot in color.

TV preview: Tom Shales on the AMC remake of 'The Prisoner'

LIFE BEHIND BARS: Ian McKellen, left, outperforms Jim Caviezel in AMC's new version of the 1967 series "The Prisoner."
LIFE BEHIND BARS: Ian McKellen, left, outperforms Jim Caviezel in AMC's new version of the 1967 series "The Prisoner." (Amc)
By Tom Shales
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Though it could be glibly dismissed as cut-rate Kafka or imitation Orwell, AMC's new six-hour miniseries "The Prisoner" -- a remake of a legendary 1967 original -- at least takes viewers to relatively uncharted territory and dares to wrestle with an actual idea or two. It also provides a showcase for one of the great elder statesman of the British theatrical tradition, Ian McKellen.

The territory is uncharted only to those who never saw the original series, which starred, and was co-created by, Patrick McGoohan, and was produced, like the new edition, by Britain's commercial ITV. Then again, even those with an abiding fondness for McGoohan's trippy fantasy will find much about the new one that is fresh, or at least unrecognizable.

And because McKellen, the actor who plays a mysterious leader named Two, is so outrageously superior to Jim Caviezel in the nominally starring role of citizen Six that the balance of power and interest shifts to him and makes it his story -- perhaps unintentionally but emphatically. McKellen gives a considered, provocative and complex performance, and he makes Two sinister in deviously cuddly ways.

McKellen is smooth and cool, with no wasted movements, while Caviezel expends the frenzied energy of a man assigned to swat a thousand flies. He's not interesting as camera subject or as presence, and his three or four expressions grow tiresome by the end of the show's first-of-six hours (airing on AMC on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, with repeats ad nauseam). What may keep viewers hooked is the promise of McKellen returning, just around the next corner.

Caviezel as Six races from confrontation to confrontation, the script being largely a series of foot chases alternating with long conversations that ought to be shorter (in the tradition of AMC's previously most ambitious production, "Mad Men"). The actor's most noticeable prior role, of course, was the physically mutilated Jesus in Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ," though Caviezel looks considerably different without shreds, gobs and tatters of bloody synthetic flesh hanging all over his body.

Not necessarily better, mind you, but different.

The back story

Strikingly photographed in starkest black and white, the '67 "Prisoner" was a curious and rather tantalizing melange of counterculture imagery, traditional paranoid fantasy and even a bit of Cold War spy thriller, with the spy stuff mostly expunged from what AMC calls its "reinterpretation" of the story. As in the original, the hero wakes to find himself in a strange sterile land known only as the Village, where a limited cross-section of humanity lives and toils, mindlessly obedient to the wishes of the village leader, Two, whom McKellen plays far more effectively than Colin Gordon and Leo McKern, who (among others) not very memorably shared the role (admittedly a smaller role than it's become).

People's names have been jettisoned and replaced by numbers in this dopey utopia, with Six having apparently been assigned his number while he was out like a light; he sleeps often enough in the course of the story to seem certifiably narcoleptic. Many of the details seem to suggest an allegory afoot, making "The Prisoner" a semi-futuristic tale of surrendered or repressed identity, enforced conformity and loss of individualism. But only fleetingly.

Though no one can leave the Village -- least of all Six, who still doesn't give up trying -- one young female inhabitant asks rhetorically, "Why would you want to leave?" The setting is reminiscent of many a fictional netherworld -- for instance, the generic American town cunningly constructed by Nazis to trick a captured American into thinking World War II has ended in the movie "36 Hours."

Except for such cute touches as the occasional lava lamp, Village decor is oppressively bland and antiseptic, as habitats of the future often seem to be in speculative and science fiction. The look is mildly reminiscent of the dehumanized cookie-cutter suburb of Fran├žois Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451," which had similar themes but was much less coy about stating them.

Brave, not-so-new world

McKellen's Two dresses in white, meanwhile, just like Our Leader, the fascist dictator envisioned for America's future in Woody Allen's sci-fi spoof "Sleeper," one of the friendliest and funniest movies he ever made. For all the variety in its apparent influences, however, "The Prisoner" never seems witty, in concept, characters or production details. The world portrayed is sallow, tepid and wan (sounds like a law firm), inviting only in the way a lobotomy seems, in a person's most harried and hellish moments, like it might be a blessing.

The topography of the Village in the "reinterpreted" version differs considerably from that of McGoohan's original; it's much more a recognizably desert terrain, oftentimes resembling footage from wartime Iraq. Brown and tan are the dominant colors with only the occasional sprig of green. For Caviezel's Six, however, the land is made festive by the beautiful women he finds popping up at nearly every locale.

He meets one of the most attractive, lovely little Lucy (she doesn't need a number?), during what looks incongruously like opening night on Broadway. "I'd like to get to know you, Lucy," says Six and pop, he's in bed with her -- though what sex scenes remain are stubbornly sexless. Lucy is played adroitly by Hayley Atwell. A kinky nightclub, meanwhile, is outfitted with half-clad hard bodies gyrating and undulating inside cages, but these are glimpsed only in passing. Apparently the filmmakers want to maintain austerity in philosophical approach as well as production design. The interiors tend to make Ikea stuff look playfully bohemian.

One carryover from the McGoohan version: occasional bouncy visits from the Big White Balloon, a mysterious symbol that apparently has the power to take Villagers to other locations from which they'll never return. Apparently if you want to leave, you can't, and if you don't, you might.

"The Prisoner" doesn't seem likely to attract a cult audience as large or enthused as the one that dotes on "Mad Men," but not for lack of trying on AMC's part; the promotion for this miniseries has been merciless and overbearing, with a promotional "bug" planted in one corner or another of the AMC signal for the past several weeks. They may not offer particularly distinguished programming, but they'll make you aware of it if they have to bash your brains out in the process.

If "The Prisoner" were up to its hype, it would be a combination of "The Sopranos" and "Twin Peaks." Like "Twin Peaks," it raises questions that it doesn't necessarily answer -- but even the raising took a bit of daring, and "a bit" is more than one usually gets from television.

The Prisoner

(two hours) debuts Sunday night at 8 on AMC, with subsequent two-hour episodes Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m.

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