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THE TINY SCREEN: Prison Break and Rome Enliven Television’s Landscape:

While movies continue to get worse, television keeps getting better. All of the risk-taking is happening on television; none appears to be happening at the multiplex. But as we all know, most of us are spending far more on our television habit than our film habit – digital cable, TIVO, it all adds up. We want our money’s worth, whether we get it or not.

Earning every penny is Fox’s new series “Prison Break,” the much-hyped thriller with rising star Wentworth Miller as Michael Scofield, a brilliant engineer who gets himself locked up in order to stage a prison break to free his wrongly accused brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell).

The show is in no way believable, but that’s sort of the point – like ABC’s “Lost” and Fox’s “24” the idea here is to lead the audience along one tense moment at a time. Step back from any of these stories long enough to see the big picture and you won’t find much going on. The idea is to see how far they can go and still pull it off.

What makes these outlandish shows work are the actors – we believe that Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer believes he’s saving the world from annihilation, and we believe Michael Scofield believes he can break his brother out of prison using his wits and a body tattoo with the prison’s structural plans on his torso. It’s crazy, it makes no sense, and it’s utterly divine.

The prison setting makes for tension so thick you could cut it with a knife – all of the usual clichés are present – racial tension, power struggles, as well as hints of the thing most people are thinking when they imagine a bunch of men locked up together in prison – that sooner or later sex is going to be a problem. “Prison Break” doesn’t immediately go there, it has to be more artful about it, but make no mistake, that’s what everyone is going to be wondering.

“Prison Break” has all of the goods to be the next big thing on TV, especially if it continues to be as good as its two-hour premiere. Supposedly, Scofield has but three scant months to pull of the break – just enough time to see if the show is a hit. If it is, they will have to figure out where to put Scofield next.

Meanwhile, HBO’s long-awaited “Rome” finally aired, replete with all of the debauchery one expects from the fated people – sex, violence, vanity, and more sex. HBO rolls it out with abandon – you can’t watch five minutes without seeing a body appendage bouncing up and down. It is an indulgent way to watch the decline of an empire.

If the makers of “Rome” had any inclination to make these characters sympathetic, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as it’s going to be to watch all of those horrible people head down that infamous slippery slope. Yes, Rome has all of the nastiness we expect in our television epics.

Right at the top of the heap in a cast of many talented faces is the queen of mean Polly Walker – who dishes out all manner of awfulness, not frantic and desperate but controlled. No matter how bad things get in this country (relatively speaking, they’re pretty good), or in any other dominant civilization, there will always be Rome to point to as comparison. As least we’re not as bad as the Romans. We love them, we hate them, we’re continually obsessed with them. What could be better? Summer isn’t even over and things are already looking up.

Prison Break airs Monday nights on Fox at 9 p.m. Rome plays in the Soprano’s timeslot, Sundays at 9 p.m.

Notable TV This Week

Thursday, September 1

World Traveler (***), 7:30 p.m., SUNDANCE.

The Boston Strangler (**), 7:30 p.m., FMC.

Shanghai Nights (**), 8 p.m., ABC.

Biography: Frances Farmer, 9 p.m., BIO.

Friday, September 2

The Faculty (**), 8 p.m., AMC.

Where the Boys Are (**), 9 p.m., TCM.

What Not To Wear Are They Now? Catching up with the new and improved dressers, 9 p.m., TLC.

Carrie (****), 10 p.m., AMC.

Saturday, September 3

Narc (**), 8 p.m., AMC.

Saturday Night Fever (****), 8 p.m., KTLA.

Forrest Gump (***), 8 p.m., TNT.

Fine Cut: A Festival of Student Film, 9 p.m., KCET.

Sunday, September 4

Final Destination (*), 8 p.m., KTLA.

Twister (**), 8 p.m., TBS.

Along Came a Spider (*), 9 p.m., CBS.

My Kind of Town, 9 p.m., ABC.

Monday, September 5

Malena (**), Monica Bellucci, 8 p.m., IFC.

Desperately Seeking Susan (***), the first and last time Madonna was really good in a movie, 9 p.m., ABC.

Prison Break, 9 p.m., FOX.

Rome: Engineering an Empire, 9 p.m., HISTORY.

Tuesday, September 6

Kagemusha (****), 7:30 p.m., FMC.

Garbo, world premiere, original documentary, marking the 100th anniversary of the legendary actress’s birthday.

5 p.m. and again at 8:30 p.m. TCM. 21 of her films will be shown on this and the three following Tuesday nights in September.

Hot Shots, Part Deux (**), 9 p.m., SPIKE.

Wide Angle, developments in Haiti, 9 p.m., KCET.

Road to 9/11, must-see documentary of the events leading up to the tragedy, 10 p.m., KCET.

Wednesday, September 7

American Masters: Willa Cather, 8 p.m., KCET.

Silverado (***), 8 p.m., AMC.

On the Waterfront (****), 8:30 p.m., TCM.

The Piano (****), 9 p.m., SUNDANCE.

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