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'Prison' has the makings of a great escape

Prison Break
Starring: Wentworth Miller, Dominic Purcell, Stacy Keach, Robin Tunney, Peter Stormare
On: Fox, Ch.25
Tonight, 8-10 p.m.

Like ''24," ''Prison Break" is preposterous. Which is exactly what makes it a good time. The events in Fox's new prison drama aren't likely to occur in any jail in any country on any planet nearby. And so the show's plot twists happily skip in and out of the boundaries of logic, ignoring the rules of sense to keep us entertained.

In a way, the series, which premieres with a two-hour episode tonight at 8 on Channel 25, plays like a pulpy Saturday afternoon adventure series. Michael Scofield is the confident hero meeting the bad guys on their own level. Yes, he commits an armed bank robbery, but only so he can land inside the prison where his brother, Lincoln, sits on death row. Michael (Wentworth Miller) believes in Lincoln's innocence fiercely, and he's willing to enter a jungle of steel bars and convict warfare to bust his brother out. He has an escape plan that's so richly conceived, so filled with forethought and wisdom, you'll want to hire him as a life coach when the whole maximum-security thing is over.

Miller's eyes are exceedingly wide and glazed as Michael takes in prison life in all its gray dreariness. At moments he looks vacant, like he might be missing a few screws. But, the dude is cagey and clever, and he plans to involve the unwitting jail population in his scheme. Peter Stormare, so memorably creepy-comic in the movie ''Fargo," plays a mob-boss convict whom Michael is using to get a job in prison. And others -- including Stacy Keach's warden -- find themselves supplying Michael with items essential to his scheme. These men don't know Michael's real intention, but they bend to his shrewd manipulation.

''Prison Break" isn't as explicit and hard-hitting as ''Oz," the hard-core HBO prison drama that left the air in 2003. But it shares the same racial and ethnic factioning, and the same brutal shankings. In both shows, prison life is portrayed as a microcosm of hatred, with the gangsters against the gangstas and the white supremacists against everyone. By the second episode, too, there are strong hints of the predatory sexuality that ''Oz" took over the top, with one leering creep calling Michael ''pretty." For all his questionable ethics, Michael is a moral pillar compared with his neighbors.

The show occasionally breaks away to follow a plot involving Lincoln's lawyer and ex-girlfriend, played by Robin Tunney. She's protective of the two brothers, whom she grew up with, but then she also wants to move on with her life.

Also, since Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) was sent away for shooting the vice president's brother, the story goes outside to track clues about that high-level conspiracy. But the show's real tension is in its prison action, and the gradual revelation of the details of Michael's plan.

Can ''Prison Break" find the right pace to thrill and surprise us in each episode and yet build mystery across a season of episodes? ''24" has been only partially successful in that department, too often stuffing go-nowhere plot filler in between the taut hours. If the show can stay as gripping as its premiere, though, it will be a welcome new prime-time puzzle.

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