Prison escape drama lacks action but makes up for it with slow-build tension and authenticity, writes Calum Henderson.
Remember that episode of Extras, the one in which Ben Stiller is directing a harrowing film based on the real life of a man who lost his whole family in the Yugoslav Wars? Kind of hard not to think of that when watching Stiller's new TV drama, Escape at Dannemora, based on the real-life prison break of two convicted murderers from Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015.
The eight-part series isn't your usual action-packed prison escape – in fact, the very idea of an escape isn't even floated until the second episode, almost two hours in. Instead the series is more concerned with exploring – at length, from many different angles – the conditions which led to the escape, probing the prison-yard politics and psychology of the inmates and staff.
Stiller and his team have done their research, give them that much. They spent about a year in Dannemora, upstate New York, before the series started filming, interviewing and consulting just about everyone connected to the prison or involved in the investigation into the escape.
The result is a series that certainly feels authentic – surely a godsend for anyone who constantly tuts "unrealistic" at the TV – but at times it is also extremely slow moving.
If you have the patience, however, there is plenty of reward. The performances from the three main actors in particular are outstanding. The first one we're introduced to is Patricia Arquette, as sewing room supervisor Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell, the camera slowly
arcing behind her like the sun as she is interviewed by the State Inspector-General. Question one: "Did you have sex with these two inmates?"
A middle-aged married woman, she seems, for want of a more accurate description, a little bit weird. It takes an age for the camera to finally arrive at her face, by which time she's dabbing her eyes with a tissue: "Inmate Matt tried to grab me and kiss me,"
she says, sobbing, "but I was scared shitless, so … "
You sense the inspector general already knows, as soon becomes clear when the episode flashes back to a few months earlier, that she's not quite telling the whole truth.
The sex scenes in the first episode are, if not exactly explicit, certainly quite hard to watch. These back-room encounters between Tilly and inmate David Sweat (Paul Dano) and later Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) were brief moments of excitement in an environment that otherwise seems almost as soul-crushingly monotonous for the staff as for the prisoners. This environment, the overwhelming sense of hopelessness it creates, is a key part of the story, and this is well established early on.
There are few stones left unturned in this thorough look at both the lead up to and aftermath of Sweat and Matt's prison break. Escape at Dannemora probably could have been a two-hour movie without having to sacrifice too much but the slow burn is bound to be more satisfying in the end.
• Escape at Dannemora screens on SoHo, Mondays, 8.30pm.