Friday, November 13, 2009

The Prisoner - Be Seeing You

Long before David Chase felt it necessary to leave the country when the series finale for The Sopranos aired, there was Patrick McGoohan and his series the The Prisoner (1967-1968). The series finale ("Fall Out") so infuriated and puzzled viewers, McGoohan had to retreat to the mountains of Wales to get peace. McGoohan's uncompromising series was willfully weird and vague to the very end, but like The Sopranos, there was closure for those who were willing to accept it.

AMC is streaming all 17 episodes on their site, so now is the best time to catch up on a classic.

From the beginning, The Prisoner was meant to thumb its nose at the existing rules that governed television series creation. McGoohan had tired of playing secret agent John Drake (that's right DRAKE) in the series Danger Man (aka, Secret Agent), but was able to parlay his value to ITV into greenlighting his idea for this new series. Originally conceived as a seven episode arc, the seventeen hours that were produced encompass some of the most uncompromising work television has ever seen. The influence on other/current shows cannot be under sold either -- Lost (the smoke monster modeled after Rover), Battlestar Galactica (Number Six anyone) and even the recently cancelled Dollhouse (concept of individual vs society and technology).

That individual vs society theme came out strong in the opening episode ("The Arrival"), but the series ended in a manner that felt a bit rushed and willfully weird -- much like the Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour, which is appropriate since the fab four were big fans and contributed MMT's "All You Need Is Love" for the finale (Number 1 was the Walrus). Even rushed, there was a lot of meat still to chew on it. Number 6 battles with Number 2 always seemed a precursor to finding out who Number 1 was, but in the end, it's the self that is the number one enemy, as revealed in the finale.

The other interesting theme was the Village/society co-opting rebellion. When rebellion is embraced, what can you rebel against?This last point is made especially clear with the beatnik Number 48, singing "Dem Bones," and talkin' bebop "daddy-o." The magistrate cops his lingo, though, and eventually, the black & white masked jury starts singing "Dem Bones" (actually, it's "Dry Bones" here, by The Four Lads), confusing the rebellious #48, who then kind of gives up. Later, after everyone has escaped and the village is left in disarray thanks to a rocket being launched (!), Number 6 ends up back home. Of course, his door opens automatically, like in the village, and we're left with a final visage of him driving like in the intro. Nothing has changed -- he's still a prisoner.

We all are.

AMC's gamble of a reboot, airing this Sunday, is purportedly to be nearly as weird, but really is a no-win situation. Remaking a cult classic that had such a distinct stamp put on it by its creator would be sacrilege, and to change it entirely might lose the point of the series. While what I've seen looks beautiful, reviews have not been favorable. I want to root for it just to champion 'outside the box' television, and will do the first two hours for sure. But an escape plan is already in the works for if and when AMC's version begins to plod.

Some music from the series:
"The Prisoner Theme" - Ron Granier
"Pop Goes the Weasel" - used in many episodes, coming to a head in the penultimate (video linked here)
"All You Need is Love"- The Beatles - the Fab Four were fans, and finale had similar crazed feel as the film (Magical Mystery Tour that this song anchored.
"Dem Bones" ("Dry Bones") - The Four Lads - (video) in finale, with beatnik and jury
"I, Yi, Yi, Yi (I Like You Very Much)" - Carmen Miranda - death of the Rover, finale.

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