DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Im David Bianculli, TV critic for FRESH AIR.
The original British series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan as a secret agent hauled off to a remote and mysterious place known as The Village, was shown on American TV in 1968. In a very volatile year, it was stunningly political. It questioned authority and championed independence. It was one of TVs first true mini series, with a beginning, a middle and an end even if that ending, the Sixties equivalent of the blackout finale of The Sopranos, infuriated as many viewers as it pleased. And even though we never knew the name of the hero, it was easy to identify with him.
For reasons unknown, but doubtlessly noble, he resigned his job as a spy, and the entire series is an attempt by his Village captors, to uncover his true motives. Each week, a village official known as Number Two tries to crack the hero using a different approach. Each week brings failure, and the following week, a new Number Two. Meanwhile our hero, played by McGoohan, continues to rage against the machine and even against his given identity in The Village -Number Six.
(Soundbite of TV Series, The Prisoner)
Mr. PATRICK MCGOOHAN (Actor): (As Number Six): Where am I?
Mr. FRANK MAHER (Actor): (As Number Two) In The Village.
Mr. MCGOOHAN: (As Number Six) What do you want?
Mr. MAHER: (As Number Two) Information.
Mr. MCGOOHAN: (As Number Six) Whose side are you on?
Mr. MAHER: (As Number Two) That would be telling. We want information, information, information.
Mr. MCGOOHAN: (As Number Six) You wont get it.
Mr. MAHER: (As Number Two) By hook or by crook, we will.
Mr. MCGOOHAN: (As Number Six) Who are you?
Mr. MAHER: (As Number Two) The new Number Two.
Mr. MCGOOHAN: (As Number Six) Who is Number One?
Mr. MAHER: (As Number Two) You are Number Six.
Mr. MCGOOHAN: (As Number Six) I am not a number, I am a free man.
BIANCULLI: The original Prisoner series was shown on CBS as a summer replacement for The Jackie Gleason Show. Needless to say, it was noticed and still is, for being jarringly, daringly different. My interpretation of the controversial ending, by the way, is that it revealed Number Six as The Villages Number One that we are all held captive by metaphorical prisons of our own design - that sort of thing. I could go on and on about the original Prisoner and Im tempted to, because the new version, beginning Sunday on cables AMC, is such a disappointment. AMC, in trying to make a name for itself as a presenter of quality TV, had a perfect record up to now.
First, it presented the Robert Duvall Western mini series Broken Trail, then the superb drama series Mad Men - great season finale, by the way - and most recently, another daring drama, Breaking Bad. Triple, home run, home run. And now, with its new Prisoner, an embarrassing strikeout. Except for the casting of Ian McKellen is Number Two, this new six-hour TV version seems to make changes that weaken the concept rather than played to its strengths. For Prisoner fans, theres a lot to be irritated by. Theres only one Number Two, rather than a succession of adversaries. And even the honorific prefix, Number, is dropped.
The head of The Village is simply, Two, now, just as our captive hero, played in the new mini series by Jim Caviezel, is Six. That just sounds wrong, like when the first adaptation of a 007 novel, made for American TV before the movies came out, referred to that spy as Jimmy Bond. Honest.
Writer-producer Bill Gallagher respects some of the old touches to keep them intact. A few villagers still end each conversation with, Be seeing you. Theres still a mysterious, oversized oval that serves as a sort of sentient watchdog. And one scene, in which Six tries to buy a Village map, is still a strong nod to the original series premiere.
Each hour, Two tries to unearth Sixs secrets, but this time, Six is not even a spy, just a corporate middleweight. But most plots are original, and arent improved by their originality. Instead of filming at the quaint yet modern resort on the coast of Wales where the original was filmed, this new Prisoner, set in the present, prefers a desert-and-mountain setting, filmed partly in Namibia. Its added lots of recurring characters, including a teen son for Number Two, named Eleven-Twelve, presumably intended to hold younger viewers. Another bad move.
The only scenes that work are the ones with McKellen. Where Patrick McGoohan was magnetic, Jim Caviezel, who played the title role in The Passion of the Christ, almost fails to register. Put the two actors in the same scene, as in this early interrogation between Two and Six, and youre in danger of rooting for the wrong side.
(Soundbite of TV Series, The Prisoner)
Mr. JIM CAVIEZEL (Actor): (As Number Six) Why are you keeping me here?
Mr. IAN MCKELLEN (Actor): (As Number Two) I see no locked doors.
Mr. CAVIEZEL: (As Number Six) Well, they were after me.
Mr. MCKELLEN: (As Number Two) Sounds terribly ominous.
Mr. CAVIEZEL: (As Number Six) Why am I here? This has nothing to do with me, any of this. Ive seen you before.
Mr. MCKELLEN: (As Number Two) Really. What were you doing in the mountains? Six?
Mr. CAVIEZEL: (As Number Six) I was I was lost. I mean, I have no idea how I got here.
What did you call me? This is something is wrong here.
Mr. MCKELLEN: (As Number Two) Yes, you are wrong, Six.
Mr. CAVIEZEL: (As Number Six) Do not call me that. Im not Six.
BIANCULLI: This new Prisoner, tries to be mysterious and compelling, like ABCs Lost. But its not so much lost as misguided. The original, despite its serious themes, had a great sense of fun. AMCs new Prisoner, just seems glum and seems a lot longer than six hours. My advice, seek out the original, skip the remake.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: You can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.
For Terry Gross, Im David Bianculli. Be seeing you.