Here’s a preview of an article coming soon on another site. I’ve been working with the editor for a week to get this published, and an updated version will run eventually, but in the meantime here’s a version that is timely because the season-ending of Prison Break will run on Fox tonight at 8 EST.
Elitist critics who disparage popular fiction, and antinomians who approve it uncritically, both fail to understand that art for the masses does very good things indeed, and typically does so through the very same means as more artistically ambitious works do.
The problem is that both uncritical detractors and defenders of such fiction are easily distracted by surface elements and fail to see how the works create meaning.
A good example is the Fox TV series Prison Break, the season-ending episode of which airs tonight at 8 EST.
Criticism of the show has basically been either (1) it’s trashy and absurd or (2) it’s great fun.
The reality is much more interesting.
Prison Break is in fact clearly a very thoughtfully constructed show, with a good deal of meaning behind the almost continuous action. Note that Aristotle, in his Poetics, pointed out that although character is essential to the production of good narrative art, action is the real essence of drama:
But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character. . . . [T]he most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy—Peripeteia or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes—are parts of the plot. A further proof is, that novices in the art attain to finish of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot. It is the same with almost all the early poets.
The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus Tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with a view to the action. (section 1, part 6)
Hence the action of even a frankly suspense-oriented a show such as Prison Break can be a valid artistic endeavor.
Clearly, the main character, Michael Scofield, an American who is masterminding an escape from a ghastly Panamanian prison after being unjustly incarcerated there, his ladyfriend killed, and the life of his nephew held for ransom, makes plenty of fascinating strategic choices in working out the elaborate scheme and setting it in motion.
Strategic choices, however, often do not involve much moral content, and hence are not truly dramatic, as Aristotle pointed out in his Poetics (for example, "Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids," section 1, part 6).
Still, Michael makes plenty of moral choices in Prison Break, as do most of the other characters, and it is this aspect of their choices that such fictions’ detractors and admirers both tend to overlook.
In part it is because the action is so compelling that one can fail to look behind it. However, there can be no doubt that the implications of the characters’ actions must be meaningful to most attentive viewers if only on an intuitive, unconscious level.
One such example occurred in last week’s episode, which sets up tonight’s conclusion. Just as the escape plan was about to come to fruition in the previous week’s episode, a young Panamanian man—really just a boy—incarcerated in the prison through some mishap, clearly an unjust sentence, realizes that Michael is planning an escape. Naturally, he begs Michael to take him along.
Recognizing that doing so would imperil Michael’s life, those of his fellow escapees, and those on the outside whose lives literally depend on the escape succeeding, Michael refuses. There are already too many men in on the escape, and bringing along a teenage boy of small stature and no athleticism would put the effort in even greater jeopardy.
The boy, Luis, is understandably crestfallen, but he accepts Michael’s decision and refrains from trying to force his way in or seeking vengeance by telling the authorities about the plot.
That, of course, is the morally right decision for Luis to make, and Michael’s was likewise morally justified.
Luis’s moral choice to refrain from interfering in the plan was rewarded in last week’s episode, as Michael relents at the last minute and takes him along on the escape attempt. Unexpectedly, Michael Schofield’s entirely unnecessary act of charity in doing so proves to be the key in ensuring the effort’s success.
Part of the plan is that a boat will pick up the escapees after they swim out to a marker buoy in the ocean. Unfortunately, the man who is supposed to meet them with the boat is detained by the prison authorities on an unrelated matter, and can’t get away. Meanwhile, the escape has been discovered, and the authorities, hot on the escapees’ trail, have figured out that they must be out at sea. They call in the Coast Guard. Just in time (as always in suspense fiction!), the escapees’ rescue boat arrives, and they get away.
The man who has come to rescue them, however, is not the one they expected. It is Luis’s father. Having been informed by Luis that the escape was on and when to expect him to arrive, the father figured out what must have happened and went to pick up the men. Had he not rescued them, they would surely have been captured.
Hence, Michael’s decision to let a moral choice override his strategic assessment turns out to be central to the plan’s success. It’s an emotionally and intellectually compelling moment.
Here an elitist critic could be expected to object that the incident constitutes poetic justice, a contemptible form of wishful thinking.
The elitist would be wrong, for the working out of the elements is immensely logical and quite plausible within the dramatic world constructed in the series. It is not wishful thinking, it is logical thinking, a perfectly sensible imagining of the consequences of people’s actions.
It is also a superbly wise choice on the part of the filmmakers, for the significance of Michael’s earlier decision will not be fully clear until we see the final irony of the group being rescued because Michael insisted on an act of charity the others thought was madness and tried to persuade him not to do.
This is the kind of truly dramatic, morally meaningful choice that routinely occurs in suspense fiction and other penny dreadfuls. It is why they sustain their appeal for great audiences—and why they should.
The season-ending episode of Prison Break will be broadcast on the Fox network tonight at 8 EST.