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'Escape At Dannemora' Suffers From Storytelling Bloat, As Story Stretches On Too Long


When a pair of convicted murderers broke out of an upstate New York prison three years ago, TV networks jumped on the story.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The cons apparently used power tools to escape New York's Clinton Correctional Facility. Their brazen and meticulous prison break seems straight out of a movie.

CORNISH: Now that movie's been made as a limited television series on Showtime called "Escape At Dannemora." The show debuts Sunday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the series suffers from a problem affecting lots of television shows these days.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: In some ways, "Escape At Dannemora" is one of the year's best TV series. It stars Benicio del Toro as Richard Matt and Paul Dano as David Sweat, inmates at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. They will eventually cut through the walls of their cells to escape. Inmate David Sweat is having an affair with Joyce Mitchell, a mousy woman who runs the prison tailor shop. She's played masterfully by Patricia Arquette. Richard Matt has a cell next to Sweat and also works in the tailor shop. He's worried about Mitchell's husband.


BENICIO DEL TORO: (As Richard Matt) You really think it's a good idea playing doctor with the tailor shop supervisor?

PAUL DANO: (As David Sweat) Why does it matter to you all of a sudden?

DEL TORO: (As Richard Matt) If she wasn't married, I'd say it's risky. But she is married, and her husband works here. That makes everything complicated. The spouse always finds out.

DEGGANS: You can hear in the background the atmosphere of the prison - claustrophobic, noisy and chaotic. Actor Ben Stiller stays behind the camera this time to direct "Escape At Dannemora." He delivers a serious drama that practically marinates in the prison's debilitating environment. Patricia Arquette's Mitchell, nicknamed Tilly, is a caustic woman who feels validated by Sweat's attention. When her husband Lyle takes her to a movie and asks about Sweat, she lies. She says a prison superintendent has them working on a project together.


PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Tilly Mitchell) And who is it that gives us promotions?

ERIC LANGE: (As Lyle Mitchell) The superintendent.

ARQUETTE: (As Tilly Mitchell) Exactly. So when the guy who gives us promotions asks me, the shop supervisor, to make him a suit for graduation and my best guy is inmate Sweat, who's been in that shop longer than I have, who do you think I'm going to be working with on this project?

LANGE: (As Lyle Mitchell) I just need you to explain to me...

ARQUETTE: (As Tilly Mitchell) This movie sucks. I'm going for a walk.

DEGGANS: Basically Tilly and Lyle Mitchell are losers. And Stiller's camera savers their bad haircuts, bad teeth, heavyset figures and serious lack of smarts. Eventually, Tilly will sleep with both convicts and smuggle in the tools to help them escape. But there's a problem with this detailed rendering of a prison break. It takes way too long to tell the story. Scenes are paced very slowly. In a seven-episode series, the escape doesn't happen until late in episode five. And the show often tells us the same thing multiple times. "Escape At Dannemora" suffers from something critics are calling Netflix bloat. It's when a TV project stretches too little story over too many episodes. This trend really emerged on Netflix, where series often drop all their episodes at once and don't need to lure viewers week after week. Consider the streaming service's failed drama "Gypsy" from last year. It starred Naomi Watts as a therapist who secretly infiltrates the lives of her patients.


NAOMI WATTS: (As Jean Holloway) I used to believe that people determined their own lives. We were in control, responsible for the decisions that shape the course of our lives. And yet there is one force more powerful than freewill - our unconscious.

DEGGANS: Yeah, I was unconscious by the time I finished that scene. Other Netflix series, like Marvel's "Jessica Jones" and "Stranger Things," saw their second seasons flounder with similar bloat. And as other TV outlets develop high-quality dramas, Netflix bloat travels there, too, like on HBO's "Sharp Objects," which distracted from its story about female pain with a clunky whodunit featuring a detective from Kansas City, played by Chris Messina, clashing with a skeptical police chief in rural Missouri over tracking a serial killer. The chief, played by Matt Craven, speaks first.


MATT CRAVEN: (As Chief Bill Vickery) Some killers want to get caught.

CHRIS MESSINA: (As Detective Richard Willis) This one likes making people scared for their girls.

CRAVEN: (As Chief Bill Vickery) Can we just save "The Silence Of The Lambs" routine for another time?

MESSINA: (As Detective Richard Willis) The odds are the killer is going to show up here to soak up the atmosphere.

CRAVEN: (As Chief Bill Vickery) I read them books, too, Agent Starling. Watch out for anyone trying to insert himself into the action.

MESSINA: (As Detective Richard Willis) This guy wants to rule the town.

CRAVEN: (As Chief Bill Vickery) He may not rule it, but he sure as hell got our attention.

DEGGANS: I've always admired British TV series like "Luther" and "The Office," which had seasons of anywhere from two to six episodes. They told their stories and stopped when the story was done. This is a lesson that could benefit series like "Escape At Dannemora," which would be one of the best TV shows of the year if they could've just told its story with a little more focus and a little less bloat. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE EMANONS' "CHALYPSO BOP (CHI BOP)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.