AMC doesn’t do a tremendous amount of original programming, but when it does, it does it well. After two critically acclaimed series, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the network is broacasting its second miniseries, a six-episode remake of the 1960s 17-part series The Prisoner, originally broadcast on ITV in the UK.
In the update, James Caviezel plays a man stranded in a surreal town called The Village, where everyone is a number, no one has knowledge of the outside world, dreaming is a crime, and there’s nothing in the surrounding landscape but desert. His memory is nearly blank, and he’s told his name is Number 6. His captor, the leader of the Village is Number 2, played by Ian McKellen.
Watching Number 6 doesn’t seem like the most reliable perspective as he flashes back to his life in New York where he worked for a company analyzing human behavior via public cameras. Hidden cameras are everywhere in The Village—grade-school kids are taught surveillance techniques, and undercover spies find guilt wherever they suspect it. We bounce between his memories, his life in The Village and hallucinations that seem like glimpses of the real world.
The questions pile up fast in Lost-like fashion in a universe with gaping holes into the oblivion, a mirage of the Twin Towers, manufactured emotions and a giant, floating white ball worthy of The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. But with just two more episodes tonight, they’re likely to be answered even more quickly.
Just how well it ends up working as an allegory for the end of privacy, for apathy in the face of diminishing freedom or for our willingness to compromise principles remains to be seen in the final two episodes tonight, but it’s an intriguing drama thanks to the central conflict between Caviezel and McKellen, who have both been riveting so far.
And it’s hard to imagine what other network might have made the effort. With just a pair of original shows in its movie-centric line-up, AMC has made quality its priority, and they were rewarded with a first-night viewing of 2.2 million, which nearly matched the average for Mad Men. That they can succeed on that scale—when twice the viewers would be a failure for the broadcast networks—reminds me of what’s happening in music. Independent labels have found ways to be profitable selling a tenth of what the majors need to break even. And they’re doing it with better music and smaller production and marketing budgets. It’s encouraging to see cable channels like AMC (and its sister channels IFC and Sundance) do the same for TV. With more diverse homes for original programming, there’s a better chance that more shows like Mad Men and more miniseries like The Prisoner will find an audience.