Americans love a caper. And an underdog. And often, we instinctively root against authority. Thus the national fascination with the June 6 escape of convicted murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt from Dannemora's Clinton Correctional Facility.
The news coverage is now a most unusual form of reality TV: one based on actual, unscripted reality. And rooting for the escapees is, for many, the guilty pleasure du jour.
People keep comparing the escape of the two men, who used power and hand tools and a steam vent, with the beloved Andy Dufresne from "The Shawshank Redemption." But in that movie, which has been playing on cable continuously for at least a decade, the hero was innocent of the murders of his wife and her lover.
The upstate escapades (which literally means adventures involving escape in French) of Sweat and Matt have more in common with Steve McQueen, the convict who charmingly and endlessly schemed his way out of various prisons and off penal islands in "Papillon." Or perhaps Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris in "Escape From Alcatraz."
We don't root for Papillon or Morris because they are innocent. They are dangerous criminals. We pull for them because they're underdogs against establishment authority, and we hate the idea that there is destiny so written in stone, or limited by stone walls, that it cannot ever be revoked or undone.
When I was a reporter in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, I was covering cops one night when a call came over the scanner of a possible prison break. The whole story would take a book to explain, but: In 2003 a very attractive, fairly young multiple murderer named Hugo Selenski rappelled, cartoon-style, five stories down on a rope of tied-together bedsheets and escaped from the Luzerne County Correctional Facility. Despite a pervasive manhunt, he did whatever he needed to do for a few days, then called the cops and told them to come pick him up at his girlfriend's house, where the remains of five buried bodies were found months before.
No one ever found out what business Selenski needed to take care of so badly: He may have wanted a steak or a joint or sex, or he may have needed to kill and eat a potential informant. But he was mysterious. And at least two people he killed were believed to be drug dealers. He already had done time for bank robbery and committed a home invasion but . . . boys will be boys.
Some people kind of loved Selenski, even though they knew they shouldn't.
In the Dannemora case, it doesn't hurt the ratings that this story is so, so strange and compelling. There is romance, with a boss from the prison tailor shop perp-walked on TV in old-school striped prison togs. Joyce Mitchell is said to have helped the men, then failed to show up to be their getaway driver because she panicked. Mitchell is not exactly a Rita Hayworth-level ingenue (think Phyllis Diller after an all-inclusive resort vacation). But that's prison love for you.
Then there is the audacity of the escape. If you can operate power tools there, it's not really a prison. It's a Home Depot you got locked in by mistake.
But most of all, there is the fact that as of Tuesday night, they're still gone, the warden and guards confounded, the cops still wandering the woods in search of clues.
I don't think the point is rooting for murderers. We know they're horrible, and they must be caught. What many of us are doing, can't help but do, is rooting against "the man." We're Americans.
Many of us are instinctively anti-authority. And we find it difficult to root for the government machine, even against murderers on the run.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.