When you live long enough, you think, say and do things what would’ve horrified you, or what simply would’ve seemed implausible, in your younger days.
That’s what happened to me the other day: I found myself grateful for the Faux, I mean Fox, network!
How did I, who teach English in a public university and live in New York — and who once took pride in not owning a TV set — come to praising the folks who foisted the likes of Bill O’ Reilly on us?
On Tuesday — yes, the fifth anniversary of 9/11 — I came home a bit later than usual from work. Feeling tired, I had no wish to engage in any of the constructive things I could’ve and should’ve been doing. So I turned on the TV.
With every button I touched on my remote control, I got the same result: George the W offering up his usual assertions without explanations of how 9/11 justifies our involvement in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.
We’ve heard it all before. That he chose to offer it up to grieving family members was, well, par for the course. (What does it say when such obtuseness is no longer shocking?) I didn’t need to hear it, so I continued to jab at the remote.
Finally, I found my escape: Prison Break.
I’ve probably seen every episode of it since it first aired. Right now, it’s the only show I watch with such regularity. I’m not enough of a fan of any show to videotape whatever I miss; Prison Break takes my loyalties about as far as they’ll go for a TV program.
Anyway, after thanking my lucky stars for Fox (!), I had another one of those thoughts that would’ve jangled my jejune vision: I had — at least, in a way — become like my father!
Watching Prison Break brought me realize that in a way, I was reenacting one of his rituals. Just as I’ve managed to be in front of a TV screen every Tuesday at 9:00 pm, my father always took his place in our den every Sunday night at 8:00 pm. That was when The FBI aired. I don’t think he missed a single episode: quite a feat in those days before VCRs.
From 1965 until 1974, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. played Inspector Lewis Erskine. He was the humorless (and seemingly libido-less), dutiful agent who nearly always got his man (or, on rare occasion, woman) and never seemed to encounter anything that seriously threatened to keep him from solving his cases.
The show was essentially an advertisement for the agency, and until he died in 1972, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was said to have had the final say on every script, casting decision and camera shot. He would not allow Bette Davis, Robert Blake and others on whom he had files to appear on the show. W. Mark Felt, who only last year revealed himself to be "Deep Throat" in the Watergate cover-up, was then an associate director at the agency and served as a technical advisor for the series.
The FBI appealed to men of my father’s generation: the last ones before the Baby Boomers, who were just old enough to remember but too young to serve in World War II or the Korean conflict. They came of age during the 1950’s, when almost everyone, whatever his or her political affiliations, did not question the size or scope of government and did not challenge the authority of its agents.
By the time The FBI aired, this country was immersed in the Vietnam War, and people — mostly young — had begun to oppose it, sometimes violently. People of my father’s generation, whatever they thought of the protesters, longed for what seemed to be a simpler time: one in which most people trusted authority, or at least never questioned it. In that world — and of The FBI — those who disobeyed the rules set by authority figures would be found, caught and duly punished.
But the world (and, in some ways, my father) changed. That is part of the appeal of a show like Prison Break. Here’s something that would have shocked my father and me back in The FBI days: I actually root for the escapees! Other people I know — some of whom are law-and-order conservatives to an even greater degree than my father has ever been — have the same reaction.
In Prison Break, Fox (!) River State Penitentiary inmate Lincoln Burrows (played by Dominic Purcell) is on death row for a murder his brother Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) is convinced he didn’t commit. Scofield robs a bank to get himself incarcerated alongside his brother. While in prison, Scofield, a structural engineer by trade who just happens to have blueprints of the prison, hatches an elaborate plan to get his brother out of prison and prove that he was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy. To help carry out his scheme, Scofield gets the details on various aspects of prison life from Senior Correction Officer Bellick (Wade Williams) and with the help of cellmate Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) aligns himself with a wildly disparate group of inmates. On the outside, Scofield has one ally: his longtime friend and former defense attorney, Veronica Donovan (Robin Tunney), who also just happens to be an old girlfriend of Burrows.
Several episodes have elapsed since Burrows and Scofield escaped. One wonders how long they can remain on the lam. Will they someday become modern versions of Jean Valjean (in Les Miserables) and settle into communities where no one knows of their past? Or will they be captured — dead or alive? Of course, if the latter happens, the series ends.
So one has to root for what, in Erskine’s day, we would’ve called the "bad guys" if we want the show to continue. I, personally, would like to see the escapees remain on the outside if the show were to give greater depth to their characters and show them, la Valjean, as men capable of doing good and doing well.
But there is another reason why viewers like me pull for Scofield and Burrows, however improbable their stories seem. Their characters are, in many ways, much more sympathetic than those of the warden, guards and other government representatives. The state employees come off as smug or stupid, or both, while Scofield is portrayed as intelligent, educated and bonded to his brother, who may be an unwilling dupe. And, Scofield and Burrows, as well as some of the other inmates are simply better looking than those who keep them in captivity
Although I am not about to say that Prison Break is high art, the aspect of the show I’ve mentioned makes me think, fleetingly, of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Poet William Blake, who read the epic poem more than a century after Milton’s death, said that its author was "of the devil’s party without knowing it." In other words, Milton made the rebel outlaw — Satan — much more interesting and complex, and in some ways appealing, than God.
In contrast, on The FBI, Inspector Erskine was always better dressed and groomed (and, most of the time, handsomer) than the men he pursued. He also spoke more grammatically and intelligently, and drove newer cars (always Fords, from the show’s chief commercial sponsor) than the perps. And, his lack of emotion extended to a seeming lack of malice, hatred or envy. That, I suppose, is how most people viewed government and law enforcement at that time. I can’t think of a single great work of Western art or literature in which doubt of superiority of, or inevitable victory by, the most powerful authority figure was never in question.
Maybe Fox is onto something. As for The FBI and George W, I will not miss them if I never see them again. My father and I talk every week. He watches Prison Break, too. As the author of Les Miserables wrote: "Plus ca change, plus la meme chose."
I’ll tune in again next week.
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.