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TELEVISION REVIEW

Six, Two, and uneven

AMC miniseries ‘The Prisoner’ gets caught in plot loops

In AMC’s remake of “The Prisoner,’’ Jim Caviezel plays Six, the part created by Patrick McGoohan in the 1967 original. In AMC’s remake of “The Prisoner,’’ Jim Caviezel plays Six, the part created by Patrick McGoohan in the 1967 original. (Keith Bernstein/Amc)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 13, 2009

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Ian McKellen could probably make Ashton Kutcher’s tweets sound like poetry. The British actor just about sings his lines of dialogue, using melody, dissonance, phrasing, and meter in service of his intentions. With his majestic delivery, he almost gives the existential blather of AMC’s “The Prisoner’’ a sense of profundity. For the duration of this six-hour miniseries, he adds a dignified, rhapsodic luster to throat-clearing bombast such as “The mind is capable of anything, because everything is in it.’’

Alas, McKellen isn’t alchemist enough to transform such a leaden piece of work into gold. Based on the far more entertaining and whimsical 1967 Patrick McGoohan series, the AMC remake is numbingly paced, heavy-handed, aimless, and humorless. Worst of all, there’s not a single character in the cold, visually cliched world created by director Nick Hurran who evokes sympathy or enduring interest. After three nights (Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday) steeped in the gnawing mystery that surrounds these people, you still might not care at all about the climactic What It All Means.

Essentially, “The Prisoner’’ follows a man (Jim Caviezel) who wakes up in a storybook town called the Village where relentlessly cheerful people have numbers instead of names, where individualism is illegal. Dubbed Six, he’s trapped inside this oppressive regime and closely monitored by the dictatorial Two (McKellen). It’s a story blueprint with perennial potential; surely each era has a new take on conformism, on the subversive power of dreams, on the need to know our origins. Questions such as “How did I get here?’’ and “Who’s in control?’’ are part of the human condition, and always ripe for picking by screenwriters. “Lost’’ and “The Truman Show’’ have both brought a timely, propulsive spin to the Orwellian paranoia at play in the original “Prisoner.’’

But the miniseries, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m., just seems to tread water in a sea of generic perplexity. The addled, ranting Six runs here, and then he runs there; the all-knowing, threatening Two appears here, and then he appears there. They clash. There’s some busy subplotting along the way, as Two deals with a perpetually sleeping wife and a gay son and Six juggles women and betrayal; and yet it’s all just pointless motion that keeps coming back to the confused hero locking horns with the smug villain. Written by Bill Gallagher, the script is the same bell ringing over and over again.

At this moment in history, an age of terrorism, war, suspicious elections, rabid American partisanship, and financial inequity, a philosophical portrait of a fascistic hell on earth such as “The Prisoner’’ ought to be a lot more charged and focused. The notion of a totalitarian Village has only grown in its potential for horror since 1967, as the world has become a linked-up global village.

The original series, which lasted for 17 episodes, tapped into the Western countercultural temperament of its time, both thematically and with pop-art flourishes. The paranoia of McGoohan’s Number Six was the voice of those pushing back against the status quo, newly bent on questioning authority. Surely Gallagher and Hurran could have fitted the “Prisoner’’ allegory with a few more contemporary hot buttons, to drive home to 21st-century viewers the oppression at stake in Six’s bondage.

With his flat performance, Caviezel, who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ,’’ doesn’t help the time pass. He has a pained expression locked on his features from the get-go, and he varies it only slightly throughout. Another actor might have drawn us further inside Six’s torment, made all the intrigue a little more engaging in the way McKellen does. McGoohan, whose Six was bemused and ironic as well as rebellious, certainly did. But Caviezel projects all the nuanced anguish of an action figure. Six had another life, as a businessman who resigned from some sort of nefarious corporation, and in the recurring flashbacks to that life, Caviezel is as brooding and bland as ever.

Also not helping “The Prisoner’’: the look. While the original series had a mod, trippy atmosphere to match its time, the AMC adaptation - little pink houses (thanks, Mellencamp) in a village perched on a vast desertscape - is characterless and static. There are no curious production-design flourishes along the way, to shake up the monotony, to add a little “Alice in Wonderland’’ to Six’s journey. For the characters and for the viewers, the miniseries is a plodding excursion on the road to nowhere.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

THE PRISONER Starring: Ian McKellen,

Jim Caviezel, Ruth Wilson, Jamie Campbell Bower

On: AMC

Time: begins Sunday night, 8-10

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