The Prisoner
Nov. 15-17

Paranoia, conspiracies, unexplained phenomenathere’s so much of it on TV these days. Maybe too much. And no, I’m not just talking about Glenn Beck.

There’s Lost, of course, which has overstayed its welcome by about two years (resolve the damn thing, already!), which led to Fringe, then FlashForward, and now we have V, a remake of the early-’80s series that has prompted some to complain that its plot about a charismatic alien leader is intended as Beck-style propaganda against Obama. Jeez. Talk about paranoia.

Hey, we’re addicted to it. So let’s welcome back one of the granddaddies of the genre, The Prisoner, which has been revamped for AMC in an effort to keep us tuned in now that another season of Mad Men has passed.

Verdict: Yes, we’ll stay tuned.

The miniseries, playing out in six one-hour episodes over three consecutive nights beginning Sunday, is a “reimagining” of Patrick McGoohan’s cult-classic British series of the late 1960s, which only aired 17 episodes itself.

This time, McGoohan’s character, Six, is played by Jim Caviezelan actor best known as Jesus from The Passion of the Christ. As in the original, Six wakes up in a generic community where everyone is assigned a number, not a name. The only known population exists in The Village, clusters of cookie-cutter houses and neighborhoods and businesses. Retro cars roll down palm tree-lined streets, evoking Castro’s Cuba.

This insular community is surrounded by a vast desert and mountains into which no one dares to venture too far; if they do, they’ll be hunted with guns and dogs, or maybe they’ll run into the mysterious and deadly Big White Orb. That’s life as usual for the good folks of The Village, who have no memory or knowledge of life outside this oppressive sphereand if they do, they keep it to themselves.

But not Six. He remembers his former life in New York City, where he worked for a sinister corporation called Summakor, until he took his research a little too far for his employers’ liking. Cursed by these still-vivid memories, Six rails openly against The Village’s all-powerful and all-knowing leader, Two, played by Ian McKellen. You cross him, and you get summoned to the dreaded “clinic,” where you may be quietly interrogated and psychoanalyzed by creepy twin shrinks or engage in a friendly game of catch with one of the hand grenades Two likes to carry in the pocket of his white suit.

McKellen clearly relishes the role and has a blast with it, dropping his smiling grandfatherly facade for a hard, scary demeanor in a beat-perfect instant when it’s clear to him that he’s not getting his point across. It’s tempting to call him the show-stealer, but the storytelling of director Nick Hurran, writer/ producer Bill Gallagher and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister is the real star.

Though it was no slouch in the production-values department, the hallucinatory effect of the 1967–68 series relied much on the script, as well as the interplay and dialogue between Six and Two (the latter played by a variety of actors over the course of the series). The evil administrator would engage his rebellious charge in absurd role-play during mind-control exercisesportraying, in one episode, a headmaster to Six’s naughty schoolboy.

The new Two doesn’t play so gentleand visual tricks and editing enhance his methods of terror. When Six wakes up sweating and moaning somewhere after a drugged-out interrogation or finds himself chained to a pole in the desert while Two sticks a grenade is his parched mouth, he has no way of telling if it really happened or it was just a dream. No matter; if those images are in his head, Two put them there somehow.

The recollections that Two’s government didn’t manage to erase come up in jarring instances triggered by his new reality, so that Six’s backstory is skillfully revealed in small pieces. The most intriguing part is his immediate postemployment relationship in New York with the very sexy Lucy (Hayley Atwell), who is not what she seemed at first.

That’s where it started for poor Sixhe has no one he can completely trust, particularly when it comes to women. He’s tempted to open up to Thirteen (Ruth Wilson), a doctor who seems inclined to believe himbut who knows? Two’s spies and satellite dishes are everywhere, and the atmosphere of paranoia that builds over just one hour is riveting.

Naturally, Caviezel’s Six is not the suave, ’60s-style spy that McGoohan’s was, and it would have seemed dated and ridiculous if he had tried. His Six is angrier, more frightened and not so sure of himself, although he conveys a convincing intelligence when he’s reading people, as well as a bit of McGoohan’s smirking mischief when toying with interrogators and the creepy shrinks. In one scene, he rattles off the plot of a soap opera his fabricated “new” family is watching. The characters all have numbers instead of names, of course, which makes for moment of fun.

By the end of its brief run, you may find yourself wishing that AMC’s The Prisoner had been fleshed out to a full season or series. But take heart that it’s as good as it is in this format. You may even notice that you don’t approach it with any sense of dreadas in, “Do I really have the time and energy to devote to this?” Can you imagine how great Lost could have been if it had been kept to six episodes?