For a fan of the classic antispy TV drama The Prisoner, watching AMC's lushly incoherent "reimagining" is a bit like having a mediocre six-course meal at your favorite restaurant; much as you hope things will get better with the next platter, it never does.
It was a long shot anyway. The 1967 original became a cult classic for so many reasons — its time, its star, its roots in British TV; all conditions AMC couldn't hope to re-create, despite mounting a first-class production with Passion of the Christ's Jim Caviezel and master thespian Ian McKellen. The two shows share a single thesis; a secret operative unexpectedly quits a super-important job only to find himself knocked out and spirited away to a mysterious community called the Village. On the surface, it's a super-happy hamlet where everyone has a number and no one knows life beyond its walls. But our hero quickly realizes he is stuck inside a strange prison, focused on breaking him down in bizarre ways that mostly make for grand, scenery-chewing flights of actorly fancy.
As AMC's new Prisoner kicks off its three-night run — airing at 8 tonight, Monday and Tuesday in two-hour bursts each evening — here's a few reasons why it can't quite match its 42-year-old daddy.
Caviezel is not Patrick McGoohan
Even watching the old Prisoner as a snot-nosed kid years ago, I could tell star and executive producer Patrick McGoohan was bent on exploding all the cool British spy myths he'd helped enshrine playing Bond precursor John Drake in an earlier series, Secret Agent (called Danger Man back across the pond). McGoohan's Prisoner hero, known as Number Six, bristled like a man of action trapped inside a Disney ride — a tiger plopped in a trippy cage calibrated to break his will and turn him into the worst thing you could be in counterculture-drenched 1967: a willing conformist. Caviezel is a wimpier version of McGoohan's Six, like a lost bike messenger, unable to remember his past and pleading for release with puppy dog eyes. Without McGoohan's gravitas or professional history, he's adrift in a role crafted as a signature vehicle for someone else.
It's not 1967 anymore
McGoohan's Prisoner was a not-so-thinly veiled take on efforts to resist the conformism and paranoia of the Cold War era. The Village — with enforced cheeriness, numbers for names and constant surveillance by shadowy masters — was an allegory for the Big Brother-style future waiting for us all if individuals like Six were subjugated. In a post-9/11 world, where we accept 24-hour surveillance and government tapping of phone lines to root out terrorism, McGoohan's tales seem quaintly prophetic. But AMC's version offers no new cultural bogeyman.
At least it has McKellen
The British acting treasure makes AMC's series watchable as enigmatic Village ruler Number Two, a craftily charismatic leader who seems to be manipulating Caviezel's Six toward a goal that is surprising, disappointing and inexplicable when it finally arrives. Given today's fights over political extremism, wealth disparities, colonialism and environmentalism, there are any number of big social canvases deserving of Prisoner-style treatment. Instead, producers have created a fever dream of a miniseries, self-consciously artful and more the embodiment of the forces infantilizing society than a rebellion against them.
Caviezel's thoughts on films, briefly
AMC's remake of The Prisoner is kinetic, alluring and a little bit confusing — just like its star, Jim Caviezel. Speaking over a cell phone line so noisy he might be standing in the business end of the world's largest wind tunnel, Caviezel seemed a bit distracted during a short interview about the miniseries (perhaps that explains why he never called back when the limping cellular line finally disconnected midway through our talk). Here's a few of his more interesting observations:
On why he didn't check out the original show before filming the new series: "I'm a mimic by nature. I'm going to pick up things subconsciously that are going to eventually be in that, and I didn't want to fail by comparison. At least if I failed it would be my own failure, not trying to do someone else."
On why he doesn't talk much about what the new Prisoner means: "A good poet doesn't have to explain to you everything. … I compare it to like when you wake up from a dream; you completely understand it when you were there, but it's very difficult to explain in the real world. In this case, when people watch it, they'll all be having the same dream."
On the toughest parts of making Passion of the Christ: "It was a film which nearly killed me. … I remember at the end of that sequence on the cross, my body was blue. It was really blue. The guy put a stethoscope on my heart and said, 'He could die.' I had pneumonia, hypothermia continually. It was stressful, but definitely The Prisoner was the second-hardest thing I'd ever done."
On the struggle to get parts after starring in the controversial Passion: "Really not much has changed in 2,000 years, I'll say it that way. I think it was hard for the studios to really understand, 'What do we do with this guy after that?' It was an awkward situation. Is this guy a romantic lead anymore? … But if I don't have a choice (to take on controversial roles) maybe we really are living in a prison."