The Prisoner used its premise of a spy trapped in an idyllic, but oppressive, village to ask questions about individuality in a conformist, overly processed society. Here are six ways last night's remake throws away that rich premise. Spoilers below...
So now that the first two hours of AMC's remake of The Prisoner have already aired, you've had a chance to form your own impressions of the sandy, angsty reimagining of the 1967 classic. (The remaining four hours air tonight and tomorrow night.)
Maybe it's unfair to compare this show to the original — but if the producers didn't want that, they should have called it something different. And honestly, even if you pretend that the original show never existed, this snorefest still wouldn't be winning me over, with its vacuous mysteries and uninvolving plot twists. After reading the comments on my preview post yesterday, I'm aware that some people are really enjoying this remake so far, and I'd love to hear more about what you liked about it. Maybe you'll even change my mind — but for now, I'm still on the side of the haters.
So here are the six main changes from the original that really didn't work for me at all.
6) Humanizing Number 2. I really would have loved to have seen Sir Ian McKellen portraying Number 2 as he was in the original series — especially the Leo McKern version. Instead, we got McKellen playing a much more human figure, who's got a comatose wife and a rebellious teenage son. I can see how this felt like a great idea, because it lets McKellen do more Acting, switching from smiling patriarch of the Village to tormented father and husband. But it also kind of erases the point of Number 2, which is that he's a kind of archetypal authority figure. I also couldn't quite bring myself to care about Number 2's son, and his relationship with Number 2. There was just too much staring into space for my liking.
And when Number 2 managed to be more like the classic version, it was great. The bit where Number 6 says "If I open my mind, you'll take it away from me," and Number 2 responds "Maybe we will. But we always give it back," was great and left me wishing for more of those moments. Why couldn't we have had more of a battle of wills — and wits — between 6 and 2? Which brings me to:
5) Wimpifying Number 6. Science-fiction author Steven Barnes puts it best: This show should have given us Jason Bourne in the Village. If you're going to update the premise, give us an updated James Bond-esque superspy battling against the one enemy he can't overpower: excessive normality and niceness.
Instead, we get a Number 6 who's just sort of a schlubby, ordinary guy, a pencil pusher at some big corporation who resigned because he felt kinda bad about stuff. And nobody even cares why he resigned anyway, they just want him to settle in and live in the Village. It's all a bit underplayed — and because Number 6 is so non-formidable, the Village becomes less scary as well. It doesn't take that much to keep this Number 6 down, and that means the Village doesn't need to muster much power or cleverness.
4) Bringing in the evil corporation. I get it — the Cold War is over, and now the biggest threat to our individual liberty is evil corporations. Which is why they've become such a cliche of late. But the evil SummaKor, the company that Number 6 resigns from, feels like the blandest stereotype of a corporate monster, and we never really fear it. We never really know who's behind the original 1967 Village, but it feels like Brave New World mashed up with 1984. Knowing (or at least suspecting, after two hours) that Enron is the Big Bad this time around just feels a bit cheap somehow. Good job, Ralph Nader.
3) Toning down the surrealism. Every now and then, this show lets rip with the surrealistic, bizarre touches. I love the fact that the only food that you can eat in the Village is "wraps" — it's like my worst airport food nightmare. I utterly adore the psychiatrist and his weird doppelganger in episode two. And I'm completely obsessed with the freaky soap opera that everyone in the Village watches obsessively.
If the whole show had been more like that, I would be singing its praises. But those moments are few and far between, sadly, and the rest of the show feels too pedestrian and, weirdly, too anchored in our reality. There are basically two ways to go with a Prisoner reboot — in an era that's already seen David Lynch and David Cronenberg, you can try to out-Lynch Lynch and go for the full-on crazy. Or you can go for a more conventional spy thriller, of the type Patrick McGoohan would have sneered at. But this show didn't really commit to either direction.
2) Toning down the totalitarianism. The Village should be oppressive and conformist, and above all creepy, with everyone playing their parts with apparent cheer and good humor. Instead, everyone in the 2009 Village seems a bit grumpy, and nobody is particularly subtle about their dislike of the place. It's never entirely clear how these people are being kept down, also — we glimpse the giant balloon, Rover, a few times, but not enough to make the single bubble seem like enough to keep everyone down. Every now and then, someone is dragged off to the Clinic or other terrible locations, never to be seen again — but the Village just doesn't feel powerful enough to keep down the resentment that emanates from every single person in it. These people don't seem to be co-opted enough, for the Village to feel believable. (And generally, the show is so low-energy, that you wind up wondering if people are just too sleepy to fight back against the Village.)
1) That whole "OMG the Village is hollow and I haz touched the sky" thing. When I said yesterday that there was one major change that bothered me more than any other, this is what I meant. We're hit over the head, in those first two hours, with the idea that everyone in the Village believes it's the only place in the world. You might as well believe in aliens as believe there's such a place as New York or London, Number 2 says at one point.
For various reasons, this just doesn't work for me at all, and feels like a really bad decision — if the Village is the only place in the world, then escape really is impossible. And questions like whether Number 6 is a number and why he resigned become sort of academic — the only context in which Number 6 could ever exist is here. It also makes the Villagers seem a bit idiotic, since they never ask the obvious questions like where all their food and gadgets and things come from — we never see enough farms or factories to make all that stuff.
But mostly, it turns the conflict between Number 2 and Number 6 into a debate over whether the outside world exists. Which feels really dull and done to death, in ways that the original 2-versus-6 conflict never did. We've gotten a million stories where people are stuck in an isolated enclave and taught that nothing else exists, and it's one of the dullest plots you can do. Plus, for us the viewers at home, there's never any doubt that yes, New York does exist. So any potential ambiguity or ability for us to identify with the Villagers goes out the window.
But enough of my blasphemous free-thinking critiques. What did you guys think?