Last week, something amazing happened. Josie and I were watching Episode 21 of PRISON BREAK, where they actually break out of prison (read the series title again if you're about to accuse me of spoilers) and when came the actual breakout scene, tension ran so high, I coiled up and finished watching the episode on my feet. Josie walked out of the living room two or three times saying: "It's too tense, I can't watch. I can't watch." I don't get this kind of emotional reaction much anymore when watching television. To me, when you're able to make your audience react this way, it's some ultimate artistic victory.
How did that happen, though? Michael Scofield is one of those idealized protagonists, which I just riled against last Friday. He's an engineer. He's smart, witty, cultured and incredibly sexy. He can McGuyver his way out of every situation due to his powerful intellect and his incredible courage. Show creator Paul Scheuring wrote his to be an object of absolute desire. What does Michael Scofield has, that another idealized character like Jack Reacher doesn't? When you get into the teeth of the question, you'll find a lot of thing (warning, possible spoilers ahead).
- Scofield doesn't talk. Part of being a self-assured badass is not feeling the need for validation. Michael Scofield never brags about anything, because he's too busy busting his brother out of jail and demonstrating to a bunch of sociopaths how badass he really is. He knows how little value words have in jail and gets busy demonstrating how resourceful he is. A common trait of high self-esteems is humility and Scofield has that.
- Scofield has something at stake. It's unlikely you'll be driven to give the absolute best of yourself if you don't have anything to lose. Scofield put himself deliberately in jail to bust his brother out. He left behind a good, comfortable life for someone he really loved. Soon enough in the season, it becomes clear though that it's both himself and his brother Lincoln that Michael needs to save from the gloomy Fox River Penitentiary.
- Scofield is borderline insane. That was a nice quirk. Michael suffers from a condition called "low latent inhibition", which is real by the way. It designs people that takes time to decipher meaning to composite objects. They tend to see the bits and pieces, but never the complete picture. According to his ex-shrink, this condition mixed with low-IQ leads to insanity, but combined with high-IQ leads to creative genius. I thought the minimalistic game of Wentworth Miller translated this very well. He makes you doubt Michael's sanity more than once.
- Scofield's condition make you doubt why he's really rescuing his brother. Michael's low latent inhibitions have for effect to make him addicted to rescuing people. It's like he sees somebody's suffering, but not the person behind it. The way he throws himself recklessly at people who need help at Fox River, you start doubting if he really helps his brother because he's family, or because he just has the compulsion to. I mean, wouldn't you have let T-Bag get Tweener? Especially after this amazing serenade. Keeps the man unpredictable until the very breakout scene (which is the last I watched, so far).
PRISON BREAK is a great show. It's not perfect, sometimes it deliberately engineers drama (who the hell lets a maximum security prison inmate alone, uncuffed with a doctor?), but it has a ridiculously strong, well-defined cast of characters and that alone can carry you a long way. That's the ultimate secret to make your idealized hero likeable. Don't let him float over the rest of your cast. Don't make your support characters just reasons to prove your protagonist's badassery. Make your badass just one of the boys. Everything comes to life when the audience has the burden of the choice of which badass it likes the most.