If you know anything about my tastes, you know I’m a sucker for underdog sports stories. But I’m only slightly less of a sucker for capers or action movies about tough guys with unique skills coming together for a mission – and particularly for its subset, in which the tough guys are bad guys who are forced by circumstance to be good guys. I’ve seen “The Dirty Dozen” more times than I can count. I dig TNT’s “Leverage.” One of the few comic book series I follow anymore is DC’s “Secret Six,” about a team of villains who invariably wind up acting as heroes (and which borrows characters from “The Suicide Squad,” also about evil men reluctantly doing good).
So the new drama “Breakout Kings,” in which a pair of US Marshals recruit a team of convicts to help them track down dangerous escaped prisoners, should be right up my alley. But the drama, which debuts Sunday night at 10 on A&E, is so flatly executed that its mediocrity overpowered my innate weakness for the genre.
The series stars Domenick Lombardozzi (Herc from “The Wire”) as Ray Zancanelli, a loose-cannon no other Marshal wants to work with any more, so he comes up with the idea that the best way to catch a con is with more cons. With the reluctant help of Marshal Charlie DuChamp (Laz Alonso), Ray recruits a team including brilliant psychologist and problem gambler Lionel Lowery (Jimmi Simpson, whom you might know as the lead McPoyle brother on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), prison wheeler dealer Shea Daniels (Malcolm Goodwin) and, initially, con woman Philly (Nicole Steinwedell, who was replaced after the pilot by Serinda Swan as a tracker named Erica). They help chase down the worst of the worst, and in exchange they get time shaved off their sentences.
The unorthodox unit doesn’t have an official name, but Shea suggests they call themselves “Breakout Kings,” which Ray insists, “doesn’t make any sense. We aren’t breaking out.”
What makes less sense, unfortunately, is what value it is that Ray and Charlie are getting out of this group, as opposed to just using other Marshals or less shady civilian consultants. (Though I suppose Lowery works a lot cheaper than your average genius shrink.) Part of the fun of this type of story is in seeing how the crooks do good while still behaving in ways the traditional heroes won’t, and there’s very little of that here. Lowery’s eccentric (and of the actors who continue past the pilot, Simpson’s the only one giving a memorable performance), but the show doesn’t use him much differently than, say, “Law & Order: SVU” uses BD Wong. Neither of the two episodes I’ve seen make any use of Shea’s skills as a scrounger, and while Philly’s grifter skills are useful in the pilot, her replacement Erica doesn’t stand out for anything other than a persistent glower. (I know Swan has a bit of cult following from playing Zatanna on “Smallville,” but I’d have stuck with Steinwedell, who injects some much-needed personality into the pilot.) Essentially, this is the same show as NBC’s “Chase,” with a tiny bit of added tension between the team members, and “Chase” was already pulled from the airwaves due to lack of interest.
“Breakout Kings” was created by a pair of “Prison Break” alums, Matt Olmstead and Nick Santora. Just like their criminal heroes, it’s not clear that their particular skill sets are being used to their fullest with this idea. What made “Prison Break” good during those brief periods when “Prison Break” was good was the breakneck, ridiculous plotting of it all. There were some colorful characters (including Robert Knepper’s loathsome T-Bag, who will pop up in an upcoming episode of this new show), but for the most part, the appeal of “Prison Break” was in seeing what crazy thing happened next. With a procedural crime show like “Breakout Kings,” that’s beside the point. We know what’s going to happen next: a very bad dude is going to bust out of prison, the Breakout Kings will bicker about the best way to handle the situation, but ultimately the bad dude will be caught, end scene.
It’s formula, and while there’s obviously a ton of appetite for that kind of formula in primetime (see the roster of dramas on CBS, FOX, ABC, TNT…), it’s not particularly well-executed formula, and it wastes the potential of the one part of the formula that’s slightly unique.
Given the blandness of the castmember cons, the guest star cons have to be particularly memorable to carry the day, and they’re not. (Though we’ll see how the T-Bag episode is.) The pilot features Jason Cerbone, who was dim-witted wannabe wiseguy Jackie Aprile Jr. on “The Sopranos,” with some added muscle and an eeeevil goatee, but he’s just a cartoon sociopath. A later episode has Derek Phillips, who’s done fine work on “Friday Night Lights” as Tim Riggins’ brother Billy but unfortunately doesn’t get to leave much of an impression here.
I remain a sucker for the idea as a whole. This is just a case of the idea not being done particularly well.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org