Till the bonkers end

Prison Break (Fox, Monday, 8 p.m.)

Speaking as broadly as possible, there are two kinds of TV dramas: shows with plots and shows with a Plot. The former usually revolve around characters going about their lives. Things happen to them. Some of those things lead to other things, which develop across several episodes. These things are generally in furtherance of the characters.

The other kind of show revolves around an event. A plane crashes in the South Pacific and the passengers have to survive, to take an absurdly popular example. Prison Break, the Fox drama that turns three in mid-September, has its event — its whole story arc — built right into its name.

One of the big problems (for network executives) with shows like Prison Break, is that the story has a natural, definite end point. The survivors get rescued. The prisoners break free. That kind of thing. High ratings, though, often make people antsy to forestall the inevitable. The dilemma, then, is whether to give rabid fans what they want or to respect the art, respect sanity, end it where it should be ended, and get rich off the DVD sales.

Stumbling upon a surprise summer hit a couple years ago, Fox execs started planning long-term. The first two seasons of Prison Break fell easily within the scope of the series’ premise. Michael Scofield got himself sent to prison to liberate his brother, Lincoln Burrows. They succeed with the help of a ragtag group of sociopaths with hearts of gold. Season two follows the brothers’ attempts to flea the country and their fellow escapees attempts to find redemption/money/love, etc.

While hardly brilliant, there was a certain clumsy grace to the impenetrableness of the prison fortress and the showy, absurd lengths Scofield and Burrows had to go to get out and stay out. Almost as soon as the show proved popular, though, the writers began expanding on a conspiracy thread that takes a show already bordering on the absurd and plunges it ... well, most recently, into a Panamanian gulag.

With the Panama nonsense and all conspiracy signs pointing directly to the female President (gasp) of the United States (gasp again), Prison Break season three officially has more in common with Lost than Oz. Set to outstrip its natural conclusion, the show can just wind out its days chasing down conspiracies. If ratings are still high? Well, they can always discover new ones. That’s the nice thing about conspiracies. •

See also

Californication After narrating a certain soft-core series for Showtime, the premium cable giant has given eX-File David Duchovny a proper show — about a novelist with a screwed-up family. (Showtime, Mondays, 10:30 pm)

The Power of 10 A quiz show that doesn’t require you to actually know anything, Drew Carey hosts contestants trying to guess the answers to inane questions like “what percentage of women consider themselves feminists?” (CBS, Tuesdays, 8 pm)

Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style Project Runway’s overseer gets his own show helping clueless women dress better. Lacking psycho designer hopefuls, show lacks panache. (Bravo, Thursdays, 10 pm)