Recently, a friend recommended that I watch Prison Break – the popular Fox TV series that ran from 2005 – 2009. Living in Switzerland all that time, I had never heard of it. But I bought the first season’s episodes, watched all 22 of them, and liked them so much that I bought the second season.
In Prison Break, there were a thousand places where the story could have unraveled – but didn’t thanks to the skill of the writers. Yes, the plot was intricate; yes, there were many characters, yes, every episode ended with a mystery that drew you back – no, grabbed you by the throat and dragged you back to watch the next show. Note: In my opinion, that ‘technique’ can sometimes provoke a negative reaction with viewers if it is perceived to be manipulative. For example, there is a very popular TV series and an extremely popular thriller/novel that use that technique and it wore then. However, with Prison Break it seemed to work. My sense is that if the mystery at the end of the chapter or episode is a reasonable culmination of what took place during the entire episode – then the technique works. But when the mystery is simply pulled out of a hat at the end of a chapter, it doesn’t.
In any case, here is what I felt was the real genius of Prison Break: It had characters doing extraordinary things that normally wouldn’t make sense, but, it set up those actions so skillfully that, in the end, you totally understood why the characters behaved the way they did. Things like the character Sucre escaping from Prison with only 18 months left in his sentence and risk having to do 10 more years. Why on earth would someone do such a stupid thing? Or Sara, the doctor, deciding to leave the door open so Michael and his fellow prisoners could escape, knowing she would most likely be arrested herself.
So often in thrillers, characters behave in illogical ways. Okay, almost by definition, both good and bad thrillers require people to do crazy things. But the difference is that the good thrillers sufficiently develop their characters so that all their actions are emotionally honest and logical given a certain unusual set of conditions. This isn’t as easy to do as it sounds. If, before seeing Prison Break, someone had told me that a female doctor working in the prison would fall in love with an inmate and help him escape, I would have said that that was contrived, illogical, and virtually impossible to make credible. But, Prison Break pulled it off. In the end, the doctor did the only reasonable thing possible based on a whole variety of disjointed factors – the innocence of Michael’s brother, her relationship with her father the governor, formative circumstances from her past life, and, of course, her love and trust of Michael. It was artfully done and I was very impressed.
Next posting will be on the ‘new thriller villains’ of the 21st century – the invisible super rich.