The remake of the 1960s' trippiest program, The Prisoner, starts airing tonight — and instead of an acid trip, it feels like you've taken one of those psychoactive drugs that makes time slow almost to a halt.
I won't provide any spoilers for The Prisoner 2009 here — we'll save those for tomorrow — but suffice to say, the remake of the paranoid thriller, starring James Caviezel and Ian McKellan, is dreadfully dull. It feels as empty and as dry as the endless deserts that provide its main setting. The "WTF" of the original has been replaced by a listless, unengaging "What the hey."
(To be fair, I haven't yet watched the last two episodes (out of six total). But I'm not getting my hopes up at this point. The first four episodes are so screamingly dull, I'm only still watching out of a sense of duty and masochism.)
To be honest, I went into this remake with severe doubts that The Prisoner could be remade — it's so odd, so quintessentially 1960s, that it's hard to imagine it working for a 2000s audience. The core message, about distrust for the artificial, conformist institutions of a braindead society, feels both too dated and too true for current television to handle. On the other hand — Ian McKellen! A man I would watch read the ingredients off a cat food label!
Sadly, it's worse than I feared. The makers of this new Prisoner apparently realized that they couldn't really recapture the gonzo spirit of the original — so they made radical changes to the basic storyline. And some of these ideas sort of make sense, whether you agree with them — but the most important change to the original is something that makes no sense whatsoever. They really wrecked the most basic element of the show, in a way that feels both baffling and heartbreaking.
As for McKellan, he's definitely the one saving grace. In tonight's two hours, he gets all the best lines and has a few genuinely classic moments. But there are also long stretches of McKellen that seem to be intended to deepen or humanize his character, but instead just make him feel less iconic and less interesting.
Sadly, Caviezel is not nearly as interesting to watch, and you'll quickly find yourself missing Patrick McGoohan's savage conviction.
There are a few other bright spots, though — the cinematography is great, the desert looks really vivid and beautiful, and the production values are amazing. There are one or two moments of amazing subversiveness and cleverness sprinkled in, and you wish the rest of the show could have been more like them. The show seems on the verge of saying something really interesting once or twice.
But for the most part, watching this new version of The Prisoner feels like you're doing hard time. I would avoid at all costs.
The Prisoner airs tonight, and for the next two nights following on AMC at 8 PM.