“I am not a number! I am a free bland!”: The Prisoner

This weekend, AMC premiered its remake of the cult-classic sci-fi show The Prisoner. This incarnation was advertised as a bold new direction for the series, which follows a government agent trying to escape from a mysterious tormentor in an isolated village too good to be true.

Word to the wise: if you try to take this cult classic in a new direction, you might want to make sure you don’t take the Dark City exit through Pleasantville on your way to M. Night’s The Village, or else you risk coming up with AMC’s The Prisoner.

First, let’s clear up one thing: it’s useless to try to compare the two when the new one falls flat in every way, except possibly Ian McKellen as Two, only because whatever Ian McKellen does, he’s the best at it. (Once, Ian McKellen looked sideways at Vin Diesel; Vin Diesel’s grandkids will be born bruised.)

So, forgetting there was ever a series about a tenacious and resourceful government agent fighting to escape an acid-trippy village under the watchful eye of an iconically mysterious government agent, AMC produced a series about a corporate investigator who quits his job (you know he’s a rebel because he spray paints I RESIGN on the window before he leaves!), wakes up stranded in a cut-rate Boca Raton, and finds himself up against a dictator with a troubled home life who may or may not be using Six to solve his domestic problems.

…so close, and yet so far? (Maybe just “so far.”)

Of all the elements of The Prisoner remake that fall flat, and they are many, the most overwhelming is the casting of Jim Caviezel as Six. He staggers around the village with the expression of irritated confusion he wore throughout The Count of Monte Cristo, in which he was so gullible you found yourself rooting for someone, anyone, else. It works to the same effect here; he’s the sort of hero who stops sympathetic people in public to demand that they tell him their secrets, and then is surprised when those people die under mysterious circumstances. (Really, dude?)

More interesting by far is Ian McKellen as Two, who splits his time between tormenting Six and tending to a comatose wife and a son who might as well be comatose (lookin’ at you, Jamie Campbell Bower). This subplot, thanks largely to McKellen’s usual masterful acting, is so much more interesting than Six’s struggle that by the end of the second hour of the pilot I found myself hoping Six would be killed so we could figure out Two’s mysteries without Six cluttering up the works.

In fact, all the supporting characters we’ve met are interesting (much more interesting than Six!), though they seem to be introduced about forty minutes before their untimely demises, so don’t get attached. The only carryover so far is 313 (the Pretty Female Lead code number), played ably by Ruth Wilson.

The production design is similarly workmanlike; the quasi-50s vibe is nothing new, but has welcome touches of surreal humor (food in the Village is all wraps, all the time), and the desert is shot with all the menace the DP can muster, so that the glimpse of the sea in the second hour is almost as much a relief to us as to Six. Unfortunately, the show has to rely on such moments for visceral feeling, because Caviezel just can’t manage to generate enough sympathy for the audience to be on his side. The village itself is as interesting as any TV mystery (smoke monsters, huge smothering guard-balls, pick your poison), but if he were to disappear, the show could go on just as well—maybe better—without him.

Another strike against AMC is the total reversal of meta-theme to which The Prisoner has become subject. The original series was an expression of the counterculture, a call to arms against complacency. The premiere of the remake was studded with bumper hints (“See who likes wraps to get closer to the mystery!”) and riddled with plugs for the show’s “interactive website” (as opposed to…?). If this was intended as a comment on modern life, it would be a stroke genius. Unfortunately, I think it’s more likely that they missed the point; here, and everywhere.

Verdict: Ian McKellen gets time off for great acting. Everyone else: community service.

Genevieve Valentine thinks Ian McKellen is awesome. Just maybe not awesome enough for her to watch the rest of this.


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