Television and movie dramas after the pattern of “Oz” allow the knowledge of human rights abuses in American prisons to penetrate our consciousness.
The two-dimensional medium renders our knowledge inert, however, before it ever develops the force of understanding.
“Prison Break,” a new show on Fox, does a particularly good job of subjugating the reality of human suffering to the presumed cravings of the masses for entertainment.
If a television writer decides to bend reality around the aims of a narrative, the distortion should adhere to a well-structured premise. Such is not the case in “Prison Break,” a veritable junk heap of plot lines.
Before I go into these, let me say now that the moral the series strikes again and again into the viewers’ skulls — as if it were laying rail track with steel spikes — is that the most important thing in life is family.
It’s a nice message, but it hardly cries out for the treatment “Prison Break” gives it.
Back to the garbage pile.
The main character, Michael, clung to his older brother in childhood after his dad abandoned them and his mom passed away. He grew up to be an impossibly formidable architect and strategist. His brother, Lincoln, grew up to be a hoodlum with the bad luck to be framed by the government for the murder of the vice president’s brother, who may have been targeted because he threatened the oil world with the actualization of all the potential that technology truly holds for sustainable energy.
With Lincoln nearing the termination of his stay on death row, Michael devises a plan to get incarcerated in the same high-security prison so he can break his brother out. This is possible because he once saw the blueprints for the prison while he was still an architect with the firm that built it. He’s decorated his torso and arms with tattoos that are really mnemonic devices related to the prison blueprints and other important information.
Meanwhile, Lincoln’s ex-girlfriend races against time to prove his innocence through a labyrinth of clues, dead ends and government-generated smoke and mirrors.
It’s hard to determine which of the elements in this litany is most trite and preposterous. On top of that, it’s hard to believe someone thought it was a good idea to throw them all together. Put together, the components of the show have exactly the form of a regurgitated stew.
Then there’s the absurd uber-man posture given to the main character. This element in the series is guilty of more than reeking of rotted and de-fleshed narrative.
The uber-man also renders the cruel and unusual treatment that occurs in many American prisons acceptable. He co-opts the terrifying and random wasteland of a real place and organizes it into an extreme masculine social hierarchy that rewards the fittest man with survival.
Fittest, of course, is merely constructed to relate to characteristics which are most broadly valued in an American male. This uber-man is white, blonde and blue-eyed. He is impervious to pain, steadfast to his goal and muscular — but not too muscular because he ultimately prevails by the strategies crafted from his indomitable mind.
This definition of fittest only exists in the pseudo-scientific fantasies of Social Darwinists. The organized and sensible environment that rewards any given combination of traits on a perfectly consistent basis is found almost nowhere in the world. And it certainly doesn’t exist in those American prisons where murder, rape and torture are permitted to administer a senseless penal code.
When we buy into the myth of the Social Darwinist prison, we do something worse than create entertainment from human suffering. We insist on seeing justice where inhumanity exists.