TV Review: A&E’s ‘Breakout Kings’

A&E’s “Breakout Kings” is a terrific log-line in search of an actual premise. 
You can see why a network would commission a script built around the bare bones of the premise, but along the line, somebody somewhere needed to recognize that writers Matt Olmstead and Nick Santora hadn’t quite cracked the riddle of how to take that premise and turn it into a script, much less a series.
Perhaps that’s why FOX passed on “Breakout Kings” after seeing the pilot? The pilot then found its way to A&E, a cable network anxious to get into the drama game, but with no clear development voice or mission. “The Cleaner” never reached the potential of its cast and backdrop. “The Beast” was intriguing, but never found enough of a hook to build an audience. And “The Glades” may be the most non-descript series on television.
So A&E is perfectly happy to have an easily marketable drama like “Breakout Kings,” because that killer log-line lends itself to an easily marketing tag: “It takes a con to catch a con.”
Well OK. And if “Breakout Kings” lived up to its marketing tag or its logline, it would be a series I’d watch again. It does not. And two episodes of this one will definitely be enough for me.
Click through for my review…
Like I said, it’s juicy premise: So it seems that once a convict escapes from prison, if they aren’t captured within 72 hours, the chances of finding that prisoner drops to under 5 percent. That’s what my press notes say, so I have no choice but to believe it. Veteran U.S. Marshalls Charlie (Laz Alonso) and Ray (Domenick Lombardozzi) decide they have to take an unorthodox approach to convict retrieval and they recruit a team of the most elusive criminals they ever captured to assist them in exchange for a transfer to minimum security prison and time off their jail sentence for each successfully retrieved con. The team includes Lloyd (Jimmi Simpson), a psychiatric expert and momma’s boy and Shea (Malcolm Goodwin), a smarter-than-normal gangbanger. And because gender diversity is required, in the pilot they choose Philly (Nicole Steinwedell), a con artist and beauty queen, but by the second episode sent to critics, Philly is gone and she’s been replaced by Erica (Serinda Swan), whose secret power appears to be that her father was a bounty hunter.
Like the tag says: “It takes a con to catch a con.”
There’s a pretty massive problem there: It doesn’t. It doesn’t take a con to catch a con. We know that, because there are at least 10 shows currently on TV that make the compelling argument that it takes a team of highly trained, technologically astute experts to catch a con. And they succeed every week on those shows, so it’s *gotta* be true.
“Breakout Kings” suffers from what might as well be called The Dollhouse Conundrum. When Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” was first pitched and piloted, the premise was a juicy one: Human “dolls” can be programmed with new personalities and new skill sets and can then be hired out into all manner of social circumstances to wealthy people who think nothing of exploitation. But then we saw the first five or six episodes and half of the time Eliza Dushku was being hired out as a sexy call girl/fetish object, which made relative sense, and half of the time she was being hired out to be a bodyguard or a midwife. 
In those episodes that went down the latter path, it was almost impossible not to ask a rather easy question: If you want to hire a midwife or a bodyguard, wouldn’t it be cheaper and more efficient to hire a midwife or a bodyguard with an assemblage of real-world skills and real-world experiences than to hire a fake who looks like Eliza Dushku, but has a history of short-circuiting? Whedon and company didn’t conquer this problem until they basically abandoned the week-to-week procedural aspects of the storytelling and began to tell a far more interesting mythology-based serial. By that time, only diehard fans were watching.
It’s a variation on that oft-repeated proverb: If you hear hoofbeats, you don’t think zebras. Only in this case, it’s more than if you want to hear hoofbeats, you wouldn’t seek out zebras. 
“Breakout Kings” is a show that’s full of zebras when horses would have sufficed and nobody in the writers’ room has been clever enough to adequately justify the use of zebras.
Does that make an iota of sense?
Try it like this: If you’re trying to track down a convict-on-the-run and you need an expert in criminal psychology, are you going to find the best and brightest from among the hundreds of trained psychiatric experts under the employ of the FBI or the US Marshals, or are you going to seek out a convict with an advanced degree and a yet-to-be-revealed rap sheet? I guess if you figure, “Well, it worked out relatively OK with Hannibal Lecter,” you might take the latter approach. But Hannibal Lecter was enlisted for only specific cases within his particular body of knowledge, while Lloyd is one of those uber-geniuses who knows everything about every sort of criminal pathology. Also, the body count — particularly in “Silence of the Lambs” — indicates that it wasn’t such a super idea, especially the part where he was taken out into something resembling The Field.
Yes, Lloyd’s brilliant, but he isn’t brilliant in a way that’s different from the behavioral experts employed by teams on half of the shows on TV. Yes, Shea has street-smarts, but his street smarts aren’t different from any other “I was raised in the hood and then I went straight” law enforcement character devised by a lazy Hollywood writer. 
For “Breakout Kings” to work, you have to be able to watch the pilot and subsequent episodes and answer this: If I was chasing an escaped convict, why would I spring Lloyd Lowery from prison instead of employing Dr. Spencer Reid from “Criminal Minds”? If I were chasing an escape convict, why would I spring Shea Daniels from prison instead of employing Derek Morgan from “Criminal Minds”? Why would I take the risk of introducing a still-incarcerated prisoner into the equation rather than employing a trained agent/expert without the baggage? 
It’s not that there isn’t an answer to that key question. It’s just that Olmstead and Santora, both veterans of the logic-defying “Prison Break,” haven’t answered it well. Through the two episodes of “Breakout Kings” that I’ve watched, I’m not sure there was a single second of the actual procedural that explained to me how these cons are doing the job differently from other US Marshals/FBI/police teams on a dozen shows. They’re still having the same long back-and-forth conversations in offices and warehouse spaces where each character gets a line of dialogue as break down the logistics of each case. They’re still out in the field doing interviews and interrogations. They’re still zipping around the country on the heels of the criminals. But in these respects, they’re no better or worse than the team on “Criminal Minds” or “Chase,” except that they eventually go back to prison in scenes that we don’t even get to see. The only differentiating factors come via expositional dialogue and not via anything the writers have been smart enough to devise.
Part of the problem is that there’s a recurring trope in popular TV crime dramas of uber-empathetic characters who are able to get into the heads of criminals and see the world through their eyes. The popular gimmick is always to suggest a “there but for the grace of God, go I” kinship, where Raymond Langston (“CSI”) or a Sam Cooper (“Criminal Mind: Suspect Behavior”) or even a Patrick Jane (“The Mentalist”) can close their eyes or squint and within two minutes, they’re so darned brilliant that they can provide every bit of the insight an actual murderer or pedophile or con artist might have provided. It’s a writerly cheat, but it’s a convention that the “Breakout Kings” team isn’t entitled to pretend doesn’t exist. They have to show us (not just tell us) why their solution is a better solution than just hiring a professional to do the job right.
[The “Well, at least they save money this way” explanation would work better if “Breakout Kings” had gone with a tag line like “Sometimes, to catch a con, you have to save a few bucks” or “Who says you can’t fight crime and cut corners at the same time?”]
That was a lot of nit-picking, but it’s really a rambling way of repeating that “Breakout Kings” has a tantalizing kernel of an idea that writes checks the writing can’t cash. I know why The Dirty Dozen was selected for a mission ordinary soldiers couldn’t do. I know why you’d hire The A-Team, rather than going to local law enforcement. I don’t see why I’d ever entrust these Breakout Kings with anything.
And without that premise, “Breakout Kings” is nothing. [Don’t get my started on why these guys are only being used to catch escaped cons. Other than the arbitrary urgency of that 72-hour statistic I mentioned earlier, I can see no good reason why, if these breakout kings are the apparently brilliant future of criminal apprehension, they aren’t being used on all manner of cases.]
The pilot was directed by “Tsotsi” Oscar winner Gavin Hood and shot by feature cinematographer James Whitaker, but you won’t find anything in its look or pacing that’s anything other than run-of-the-mill procedural grittiness. They’re out in the field, but with no real sense of place. And because our good guys are bad guys, the bad guys have to be presented as *extra* bad just to produce any stakes, but that isn’t the same as yielding interest.
Alonso is a static, unengaging leading man, but much of that is a product of a character with no notable characteristics to speak of. He’s a workaholic? So what? 
Lombardozzi is able to coast on “The Wire” goodwill for a while, but a piece of character information introduced at the end of the pilot needed to be set up better or developed faster to be worth the effort.
Of the kings themselves, only Jimmi Simpson is able to do anything even slightly interesting with his character. For years, I’ve been feeling like the “Zodiac,” “Carnivale,” “Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Virtuality” character actor was worthy of his own vehicle, but the search to find a vehicle worthy of him continues. I’d have watched the original “Breakout Kings” pilot and attempted to redevelop it as a Lecter-esque drama built only around Simpson’s character. The logical problems I detailed extensively become much less problematic if you’re only wondering why they’d spring one con — He’s the smartest darned con in the world — rather than figuring out the sense of utilizing the exact same three cons as recurring figures even though several of their areas of expertise will have absolutely nothing to do with most cases.
It’s weird that I felt the compulsion to review “Breakout Kings” at all. Sepinwall already did his review and Sunday night also sees the premiere of two reality shows — “America’s Next Great Restaurant” and “Taking on Tyson” — that I preferred. I guess it comes down to my feeling that what I disliked about “Breakout Kings” was easier to quantify than what I liked about those other shows?
It happens sometimes.
“Breakout Kings” premieres on A&E on Sunday, March 6 at 10 p.m.