Breakout Kings: The Complete First Season Review
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The last decade has seen cable TV repeatedly outperform the broadcast networks as a home for quality original-scripted programming. Premium channels like HBO and Showtime, alongside basic cable channels like AMC, FX, and USA, have all fielded series that have earned high ratings and/or critical acclaim. A&E has only dipped its toe in those waters a couple of times, and while its most recent effort isn’t likely to rank it among its more successful brethren, Breakout Kings still manages to deliver an entertaining hour of weekly TV.

The premise blends a little of It Takes a Thief with some of The Dirty Dozen, with federal inmates helping the U.S. Marshals Service catch prison escapees in exchange for time off their sentences and the chance to spend a little time outside prison walls. Former desk jockey Charlie (Laz Alonso) and ex-cop Ray (Domenick Lombardozzi) run the unit, which consists of gang leader Shea (Malcolm Goodwin), bounty hunter Erica (Serinda Swan), and genius psychologist Lloyd (Jimmi Simpson).

The creators developed the idea while working on the Fox drama Prison Break, and while they wisely drop that series’s labyrinthine plots in favor of a fugitive-of-the-week episodic format, the tone of that series still carries over. The “heroes” tend to be likable if inherently flawed, while the villains are genuine evil, allowing the series to get away with some fairly extreme violence without tarnishing its leads too much. An early episode even features the return of Robert Knepper as charismatic psychopath T-Bag from Prison Break, almost marking this as a spin-off.

As the show’s creators note in the DVD commentaries, crime procedurals are a dime a dozen on TV right now, so a series like this one will rise or fall based on the characters and how they interact—an area in which Breakout Kings neither fully succeeds nor fails. On the cop side of the roster, Alonso gets stuck playing the straight man to Lombardozzi’s tough guy clichés, while agoraphobic technical assistant Julianne (Brooke Nevin) often gets lost in the shuffle. These three are the most problematic, often suffering from confusing or underdeveloped subplots and back stories.

The three cons fare much better in that department. Goodwin and Swan both do solid work with characters that start thin but receive more substantial development as the season goes along. Goodwin plays up the charm of a born operator while Swan refreshingly focuses less on sexiness (though the show certainly doesn’t ignore it) than on the physical menace of a woman with several murders in her history. And, through it all, Jimmi Simpson steals nearly every scene he’s in as a former child prodigy whose intelligence far outstrips any social graces he might possess. Simpson gets the best lines in most episodes, and he almost always knocks them out of the park.

With the first season out on DVD and the second season just beginning on A&E, there’s room enough in the television landscape for a show like this. It won’t garner (and it doesn’t really deserve) the critical accolades that AMC stacks up, and it’s not quite as lighthearted as the bulk of USA’s fare, but it’s an entertaining procedural drama with some enjoyable characters. Breakout Kings may not be a breakout success, but it’s worth letting it run free for a while.

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