'Escape at Dannemora': TV Review

Pacing problems and unpleasant characters limit its success.
11/18/2018

Director Ben Stiller and stars Patricia Arquette, Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano give it their all, but this Showtime limited series struggles to overcome the constraints of the prison-break genre.

There's no denying the very clear and sometimes effective thoroughness and seriousness of the new Showtime limited series Escape at Dannemora, about the famous real-life prison break there in 2015. The series has a stellar cast — Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano, just for starters — with Ben Stiller directing and joining the effort at tackling the subject matter head-on.

But the subject matter is one of the main things that trips up Escape at Dannemora and there's not much that Stiller or a fine cast can do about it. Prison break stories, no matter how weird — and there's some deep oddness to the story here — are often easily bogged down by the seemingly eternal effort to get out, a major problem exacerbated here by the surprising amount of excess fat created by deep-diving into the lives of the major characters over seven-plus hours. Which is the other big problem — most people are in prison for a reason, in this case murder, and no matter how much a granular look at their lives in the present creates empathy and frames a new perspective on their characters, these people are ultimately not angels. Escape at Dannemora takes great pains to conceal that inherent flaw by not revealing the full darkness at the heart of the main characters until the penultimate episode, but by then the overwhelming slowness has become a major deterrent — even when patches in most episodes have their riveting moments.

Writers and executive producers Brett Johnson (Ray Donovan, Mad Men) and Michael Tolkin (Ray Donovan, The Player), along with fellow executive producer Michael De Luca (The Social Network, Moneyball) and Stiller, spent about a year in the North Country of upstate New York, location of the Clinton Correctional Facility (known by locals as Dannemora because that's the town it dominates), before filming started. They wanted to get to know the people, the culture of the town, etc. You can see some of what they gleaned in the portrayal of Arquette's character, Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell, who worked at the prison as an inmate supervisor in the garment shop and ended up becoming involved sexually with both David Sweat (Dano) and Richard Matt (Del Toro) before aiding their escape, allegedly the first in the prison's 170-year history.

Tilly is pretty awful — deeply twisted in a back-country, uneducated kind of way. The level of detail the series gets into with Tilly and her husband, Lyle (Eric Lange), allows both actors to deliver exceptionally committed performances, heavy on the disdain Tilly felt for Lyle and Lyle's own open-hearted but dimwitted ways. Each character is dominated — and enough emphasis can't be put on this — by seriously bad dental issues and minor speech impediments, further enhanced by the characters' rural speech patterns. Why is this ultimately a big deal? Because as long stretches of Escape at Dannemora begin to feel like they are dragging, it becomes a distinct distraction. Though Lange's all-in performance gives Lyle a sympathetic layer, especially since we know his dopey demeanor is being taken advantage of, Arquette's Tilly at some point becomes so relentlessly annoying and unlikable that there's no emotional connection to her bad deeds. You want her to get caught. By the sixth episode "reveal" of each character's heart of darkness, it is Tilly's the audience will end up being least surprised by since they've already seen it incessantly in action.

Dano and Del Toro — but Dano, especially — have more to work with in their characters. Though Del Toro's Matt, something of a prison kingpin for the favors he can wrangle and the proficient oil paintings he produces, is a familiar character for those who know their prison dramas, Dano's Sweat is more nuanced and ultimately more intriguing. Both actors, along with David Morse (as an ethically challenged and conflicted prison guard), are stellar. 

Unfortunately, all the top-notch acting can't quite overcome the pacing problems of the series. It takes five episodes to get out of the prison and even Stiller's most impressive and creative efforts at illuminating all the discovery, digging and sweat it took to get there can't make it more exciting. On the one hand, you have to show the effort — busting out in an hour isn't dramatic. On the other hand, not a lot of what goes on inside is interesting enough to keep you there for five-plus hours. The constraints of the genre, coupled with characters you ultimately don't care about, end up undercutting the best of Escape at Dannemora's intentions.

Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Arquette, Paul Dano, Eric Lange, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt
Created and written by: Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)