TV review: A&E's 'Breakout Kings,' where prisoners outsmart the escapees

A&E's new crime drama, "Breakout Kings," follows a team of convicts who are enlisted to help U.S. Marshalls track down dangerous escapees. The show airs March 6 at 10 p.m. ET.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 8:18 PM

"Breakout Kings," a predictably gritty new crime-fighting drama premiering Sunday night on A&E, burns off its concept right away. It presumes a penal system rife with high-profile breakouts. It also informs us that the chances of getting these baddies back behind bars all but dissipates after 72 hours, so there's no wasting time.

As if any TV pilot these days would dare waste a split-second of time. Viewers will now shoot to kill before a show even clears the second barbed-wire fence.

The twist here is that a department within the U.S. Marshals Service, led by Charlie DuChamp (played by D.C. native and cop-show vet Laz Alonso), has decided to ask a few of the most flight-risky convicts to help them outwit and capture the escapees.

Thus, an untrustworthy strike team of cons is assembled, "Mod Squad"-style, from the nation's high-security prisons. They are promised that if they help track down a particularly pernicious escaped killer, they'll get transferred to nicer prisons and have a month shaved off their sentences for each successful capture.

I know. Let's just go with it for a while and see if it works.

(Two episodes - 83 total minutes - later . . . )

Okay, it doesn't work. There's a bit of banter well-delivered and some artful action, yet "Breakout Kings" lacks a certain vim and chemistry required for a real breakout series.

DuChamp's reluctant partner is Ray Zancanelli (Domenick Lombardozzi), a marshal with a big ethical blemish on his record, who is presently living in a halfway house.

The two agents go off to various prisons to round up the rest of the cast: There's streetwise Shea (Malcom Goodwin). There's sexy Philly, played by Nicole Steinwedell - but don't get too attached; the producers dumped her after the first episode and have replaced her with Serinda Swan as Erica, another gorgeous inmate from wherever they lock up such women. There's also beastly Gunderson, to whom you should get even less attached (won't even bother with the actor's name here) because he tries to hide a butter knife in his sock at lunch and is left handcuffed to the diner booth as punishment, forever jailed in Pilotsville.

Lastly, there is brilliant-but-demented Lloyd, a former psychology prof whose gambling addictions led him to high crimes - played by Jimmi Simpson, perhaps better known as David Letterman's Lyle the Intern. Simpson is an engaging composite of creepiness and wit - imagine Hannibal Lecter without the cannibalism and more of an Apple Store Genius Bar thing going on. If the show succeeds at all, it will likely be because of him.

But it's a bad sign when one of the better performances in the first episode (besides Simpson's) comes from the fugitive himself.

Here, it's Jason Cerbone as murderous bank robber August Tillman, who has cleverly broken out by disguising himself in a quilt of license plates (?!). He's now on a killing spree, executing his former partners in crime.

As they careen up and down the eastern seaboard on Tillman's trail, the cons must learn to work together, using their thinking-like-a-criminal skills while resisting the urge to flee. The marshals have to learn to trust their team, while guarding them. It's all very quick but rather flavorless. They'll catch the escapee, no doubt, but they can't catch us.

Breakout Kings (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on A&E.

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