November 19, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Escape At Dannemora”


ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime

Although the star currency of producer/director Ben Stiller and leading players Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano doubtless were responsible for the 7 hours of ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA being produced by Showtime, the limited series is far from a glossy big-name vehicle.  As an actor, Stiller has regularly interspersed indies like Greenberg and Brad’s Status among his more commercial work, but Dannemora is more grim and deglamorized even than his Permanent Midnight (which was written by Jerry Stahl, one of the writers here).  As the title and a framing device featuring Bonnie Hunt as a New York State investigator makes clear, this is the story of a jailbreak, a real-life one that took place in 2015.  Dannemora isn’t a thriller, though, nor does it reach for the comic focus of an Orange Is The New Black.  Based on its opening hour, it’s as earnest and serious as a piece of journalism.

Stiller, and series creators Michael Tolkin and Brett Johnson (who wrote the opening hour), are determined to convey the dispiriting reality of prison life in a freezing upstate New York winter, and they carefully tread the line between depicting tedium and recreating it.  Richard Matt (del Toro) and David Sweat (Dano) are the central figures, felons who work in the prison’s sewing shop, where they’re supervised by Tilly Mitchell (Arquette).  She’s married to another guard, Lyle (Eric Lange), and so disaffected that she indulges in furtive, unerotic couplings with Sweat, an arrangement coolly observed by Matt.  He’s a part-time artist who has the small-town prison wired through his friendship with the senior guard Palmer (David Morse).

Dannemora takes its time sufficiently that it isn’t until the very end of the first hour that the idea of escape is even raised.  For the most part, we follow the dull, rote days of the protagonists, the guards nearly as trapped as their prisoners.  Tolkin and Johnson keep enough going on so that the proceedings don’t become unbearably slow, and Stiller directs with an eye to gritty reality, shooting on actual locations, with grey-ish photography by Jessica Lee Gagne, and the only occasional sign of life from needledropped songs on the soundtrack.

The actors are all excellent.  Del Toro is a master at knowingly watching, which is much of Matt’s activity, and Dano is the more squirrelly of the convicts, his assignations almost as much of a job as his sewing.  It’s something of a cliche to praise an actress’s performance as “brave” when the role eschews Hollywood ideals of appearance, but Arquette certainly commits entirely, although it’s not clear why the New Yorker Tilly speaks as though the prison is one town over from Fargo.

It’s clear from the opening episode what Escape At Dannemora doesn’t intend to be, but less obvious what it has in mind instead.  With six hours to go, the show will at some point have to step in a compelling direction or run the risk of leaving itself behind bars.  It’s assured enough to make one believe that its makers have a plan in mind.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."