We're starting a new thing here today: the 'Fall premiere' reviews. Often, producers will decide to tinker with a returning series over the summer break. They'll tweak the format, kill off old characters, bring in new characters and do all sorts of things to the show. The problem is that typically, not all of these changes are for the good. So is the show returning in the fall (aka 'the autumn' aka '2007 by the time the UK networks have got round to broadcasting them') the same show but better, or the show in name only?
These spoiler-free reviews will let you know whether to brace yourself or get excited. I hope.
Let's start with Prison Break.
In the US: Second season, Mondays, Fox, 8/7c
In the UK: UK Gold, Sundays, 9pm. Second season will air on Five, and probably Five US when that launches.
Characters re-cast: 1
Major characters gotten rid of: 1
Major new characters: 1
Format change percentage: 95%
As if to prove a point, here's Prison Break, the first of the returning series, and the one likely to have been altered the most. Season one was all about Michael Schofield (Wentworth Miller) and his attempt to break his brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) out of jail.
Guess what. He did it, along with a whole load of other inmates, some guilty of petty crimes, others guilty of rather heinous ones indeed. So the producers either had to get them all thrown back in jail again, ready for Michael to hatch another cunning plan; or they had to let them go on the run.
They chose the latter.
That means we have an almost complete format change. No more digging holes. No more keeping things secret from the guards. No more gooey eyes at the lady doctor. Now, it's all about the chase.
The producers have retained some elements of the show we knew and loved. No one has been recast, apart from the supposedly dead brother of the president: John Billingsley was unavailable since he's now a member of The Nine. Only one major character gets killed off. Otherwise, all the original cast are still there, even ones you didn't expect to be, such as the prison guards and the governor.
One major new addition is William Fichtner, who has the unenviable task of chasing down Michael and co. Much of this initial episode is spent bigging up Fichtner's character to make him seem a credible foil for Schofield's intricate genius. As a result, Michael, despite still finding a use for that iconic tattoo of his, seems more ineffectual than he did last season.
Fichtner is great as always. But since it looks like he'll catch them in just a couple of minutes, thanks to all the progress he makes in the first episode, I suspect there's going to be a dumbing down of his character to ensure they're not all banged up again by episode five.
The shift from the night-time ending of last season to the day-lit beginning of this season is also jarring. Have they really been running all night? They've been in prison for at least two months, and yet they have more stamina than most marathon runners. How exactly did they get away from the police? Maybe they'll flashback to that. Or maybe they're just hoping we won't ask too many questions...
The daylight also brings a change of scenery. We're not in the midwest anymore - we're in Texas. The difference is pretty noticeable, since the snow and rain of the Chicago area have been replaced with the sub-tropical Texan landscape. Again, jarring but we've been asked to make bigger allowances before now.
Despite these changes, the show still retains its tension. There are no wildly absurd personality shifts among any of the characters. There are no absurdly quick and illogical resolutions to inconvenient plot lines. It's all pretty much a natural continuation of the first season.
There's a trailer for the second season below. If you're in the US, have Windows on your computer and you missed the first episode, you should be able to watch it online at the Fox web site. I've tried the site on both a Mac and a PC here in the UK and it doesn't seem to work, so UK viewers will have to wait or find other ways to watch it.
- September 5, 2006: Airing dates for US shows, both in the US and over here
The second season of Prison Break is set to air in January on Five in the UK.