AMC has just finished its first run of the 2009 version of The Prisoner, an update of the 60s Patrick McGoohan series. The original Prisoner is often prefaced by the words "classic," and it has developed a cult of enthusiasts over the years. For good reason: the set-up was inspired, as well the look, and McGoohan was perfect for the role. The new series has received mixed reviews, at best. Two very good TV critics, James Poniewozik of Time and David Bianculli of NPR, more or less trashed it, essentially saying that all of the changes in the new series were in the wrong direction. Poniewozik called it "pretentious."
The only positive element, according to both men, is the performance of Ian McKellen as Number Two. In the original, Number Two was a sort of governor of the Village/Prison where all the action took place, ruling on behalf of a mysterious Number One (and perhaps also an even more shadowy corporate body that is alluded to but never mentioned.) Several important differences between the old and new involve Number Two (who is now just called Two). First, in the old series, the actor playing Number Two changed every episode (the exception being Leo McKern (Rumpole at the Bailey), who was in two different episodes.) In the new one, McKellen is the same Two throughout. He's also a more complicated and sympathetic character. Also, Number One has essentially disappeared. It's suggested at one point that he's just a metaphor (yeah, I think the theological implications are intended). The McGoohan character, Six, is played now by Jim Caviezel, and the universal assumption seems to be that he is upstaged at every turn by McKellen's brillance.
Although I am a big fan of the original Prisoner, I have to say that it has benefitted a great deal from nostalgia, which tends to miss out on a number of weaknesses. The most obvious problem was with the notorious final episode. Poniewozik notes that the original series was "never completely resolved," which is one way to put it. My way of putting it would be that the final episode was the worst ending to a television series that ever was: so incoherent and silly that it was almost offensive. McGoohan would later say that his home was attacked by outraged viewers the day after its original showing. After having watched the whole series and then experienced the deep disappointment of the final, all I can say is that it was an instance of justified mob violence. Although there's never been a clear explanation for what happened (McGoohan very carefully dominated discussion of the series during his lifetime, and so the open scandal of the last episode was never really addressed) there are three plausible explanations:
1. The series ended before it was supposed to, and so the producers (McGoohan was executive producer) had to quickly come up with an ad-hoc ending, and this was the best they could do.
2. McGoohan wrote himself into a corner (we might call this the Lost problem). It was pretty obvious who Number One was supposed to be, by the end: essentially, the identity is signalled at the beginning of every episode. A little too obvious, maybe. The writers couldn't figure out how to give the final a true hook, so they just threw this mash at the viewers.
3. The series suffered from the departure of George Markstein, one of the original creators, who left about halfway through the series run (following, I believe, a fight with McGoohan). Markstein might have been able to figure out to end the damned thing.
In general, the series was much weaker after Markstein left. I would argue it was him, and not McGoohan, who was the real genius behind the original.
The new Prisoner is not the equal of the original. It is far superior, beginning with the fact that it has an actual ending, which explains what has been going on for the past six hours. A number of critics complained that the narrative was confusing, and it is. Temporal and spatial shifts occur constantly, with little or no explanation. Characters appear in different roles without explanation. If you watch all the way to the end, you'll see why all of this is happening. The producers have used various techniques to mimic the mental dislocation that the main character feels. I suspect that this is why AMC decided to run the entire series over the course of only three nights. The network probably felt that modern viewers would not stick with something this difficult over a longer period. But I don't think that's a sad commentary on the show's technique. I think its a sad commentary on modern television audiences.
But the real success of the series, the reason that I am writing this post, deals with the moral dilemma presented in the last episode. This has been the area of greatest obtuseness on the part of the reviewers. Even the person from The New York Times, who generally liked it, thought that the theme of the show was much less ambitious than the 60s version: appropriate, he wrote, for our postmodern fatigue with ideology and big ideas.
I dunno: to me it seemed like there were lots of big ideas in this series, the most important one being the continued attraction of utopia, which the writers presented in a particularly clever manner, playing the audience in the same way, more or less, that Two plays Six. Like Six, by the time we figured out what has happened, it's too late.
And when I say that the ending is clever, I mean that it is morally compelling in manner all too rare at our current cultural moment. Someone who would be willing to sacrifice human freedom or human lives on behalf of The People, or Humanity, or The World, or God, is too stupid to be trusted with anything more powerful than a lawn mower: this is a moral truth so obvious that both Stalin and C.S. Lewis could agree on it. But what if the pain that we were going to relieve was not that of some bloodless abstraction, but a single individual. An individual whose agony, while fictional, is very realistic, and severe. And a character that we have come to like a great deal over the course of the past six hours. There is no longer a clearly best or worst choice: the series complicates the line between good and evil in a way that the earlier series did not.
Here, utopia (in the sense of a world accomplished in the art of reducing human suffering) comes about not through politics but through the application of science. I wonder if this is not part of the reason for the mixed reviews of the series. We may have undergone some "postmodern fatigue" with politics and grand narratives, but our utopian desires have not left us. We have merely transferred them to technology. Maybe the reason that critics like Poniewozik and Bianculli didn't like the show much is that it hit a little too close to home. The 60s Prisoners embodied the cultural zeitgeist; the 2009 version challenges it.
Finally, I have to say that McKellen's work was over-praised, Jim Caviezel's under-appreciated. Both men did solid a solid if not spectacular job: the real accomplishment here lay in the writing and production, not the acting. But I think that at this point McKellen has approached a sort of Olivier-like cultural status, whereas Caviezel is too good-looking, and his politics and religion too suspect, to get any critical breaks.