Prison Break Breaks Down, Or “The Four Seasons”

Fox didn’t surprise much of anyone when they announced the cancellation of Prison Break. The chief concern about the show was always its sustainability; that’s why Fox was initially reluctant to pick it up and why the producers considered doing it as a miniseries instead. Like Heroes and a number of other shows from the 2005-6 serial fad, this had a built-in “and then what?” problem — the premise is so front-loaded that once you get past all the initially-interesting stuff that the idea offers, there’s not a whole lot left to do.

Lost and 24, the most durable of the serialized shows, are durable in part because they do have a certain built-in sustainability. Lost is sustainable because, like The Fugitive, the premise can’t completely burn itself out until the producers are ready to give us a full-fledged ending; no matter how many arcs get wrapped up, we’re still kept waiting for the big finish. And 24 is sustainable because every season is really one very long self-contained episode; the show can reboot every year just by giving us a new terrorist plot for Jack to foil. So Lost is still about being stuck on an island, and 24 is still about a badass dude foiling terrorist plots, but Prison Break hasn’t really been about the Prison Break for quite some time.

The cancellation will leave this show, which once looked like a big hit, with only four seasons and about 75 episodes (because the third season was strike-shortened). That’s a pretty good run, but it’s always something of a disappointment because it’s not quite enough for a syndication sale. (Not that this matters so much to a serialized show like PB, since that kind of show has no future in syndication one way or the other.) A show with a four-season run is usually one that started out looking like a hit and then burned out, or got moved to an incompatible time slot, or something; they’re not quite flops, but they’re not quite the kind of show that manages to hang on for a five-year run either. They are shows that are almost hits but not quite.

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