Of all the new dramatic series that premiered in the early months of 2011—The Chicago Code, Lights Out, even The Cape—it was probably Breakout Kings that got the booby prize for worst reviews. Yet it's the one that's getting the second season. The haters weren't out of line, but there are some legitimate, non-crazy reasons for the show's modest success. It has what ought to be a perfectly serviceable live-action comic-book premise. Domenick Lombardozzi, whose professional name would have been “Danny Lombard” if he'd worked in the days of the old studio system, plays Ray, a Deputy U.S. Marshal who's been reduced to living as a parolee in a halfway house because he lifted some money from a crime scene, which he did because he had a Very Good Reason. Looking to redeem himself and put his improved empathic bond with convicts to use, Ray concocts the idea of using a task force made up of cons to track down prison escapees. (Every time they succeed in running a fugitive to ground, each member of the team gets a one-month reduction in his or her prison sentence.) Lombardozzi used to play Herc on The Wire, and this role gives him the chance to play the cop that Herc, in his more self-deluded moments, might have thought himself to be. It's kind of like watching a chimp that you once saw roller-skating at the circus accept the Nobel Prize for his more recent work perfecting new advances in laser surgery.
The cast also includes Laz Alonso as Charlie, the boringly upstanding marshal who's in charge of the task force—he spends a lot of time planting his feet on the floor and forcefully pointing with one index finger—but the core appeal of the show depends on the jailbirds under his command, who have might been recruited from the Maximum Security Correctional Institute Of Misfit Toys. There's Shea (Malcolm Goodwin), the black one, whose combination of street smarts and vast knowledge of all manner of criminal activity suggests that he once operated the only street gang affiliated with SMERSH. There's Erica (Serinda Swan), the lady one, a seasoned bounty hunter who tracked down and killed five guys, because she had an even better reason than Ray did for stealing that money. And in the “not statistically classifiable” department, we have Lloyd Lowery, a genius-level behavioral psychologist and uber-geek, played by Jimmi Simpson. (He's in the jug for having peddled illegal prescriptions to finance his gambling addiction.)
Simpson, whose other credits range from Lyle the Intern on the David Letterman show to Phil T. Farnsworth in the Broadway play The Farnsworth Invention, is consistently the best thing about the show. He seems to have a special gift for playing socially maladjusted brainiacs, and he has the courage of his characters' affectations. Lloyd isn't someone people fall in love with at first sight, and at the start of the series, Simpson dared to play him as deeply off-putting, trusting that the audience would find him interesting enough to want to watch him until they could begin to understand him. Simpson has an especially sweet touch in his scenes with Brooke Nevin, as the woman Lloyd has a crush on. She's Julianne, a washout from the FBI training center who waits back at the fort while the Breakout Kings are running all over stretch of the continental United States, which for some reason, on this show, always looks like Toronto. (To its credit, the show only uses the ridiculous name "breakout kings" when it wants to use it for a horse laugh.) The near-agoraphobic Julianne has so many phobias and emotional disorders that Joan Cusack's character on Shameless would regard her as squirrelly. Lloyd's scenes with Julianne, whom he tries to gently court without spooking her back into her rabbit hole, give Simpson his best opportunity to show that underneath Lloyd's smugness is a lonely lost soul who wouldn't mind being liked, but whose pride can only accept it if it comes on his own terms.
For the show's new season, somebody had the inspiration of drafting a character out of Lloyd's past to serve as boogeyman/arch-nemesis. Jason Behr (who appeared in the TV series Roswell and the American remake of The Grudge) takes on a Patrick Bateman-like cast to play Damien Fontleroy, a rapist and serial murderer whose career of evil Lloyd helped to end, because Dexter Morgan was busy. Fontleroy was once a successful businessman, which gives Lloyd the chance to make one of those speeches about how corporations and the CEOs who run them have many of the same traits identified as belonging to psychopathic personalities. (You half expect the show to cut from him finishing his summation to an unshaven Mitt Romney speeding down a lonely road and swilling human blood from a Wild Turkey bottle, with a dead hooker strapped to the roof of his car.) Fontleroy's certainly a resourceful booger. In the opening scenes, he breaks out of the federal prison at Danbury by rigging a device involving plastic spoons and the stretchable band from a pair of underwear to stab a guard in the throat. For his next trick, he pulls a Barbara Wodehouse and calls upon his mastery of Hebrew to throw off his pursuers by ordering the Israeli-trained prison dogs to sit.
Once on the outside, Fontleroy reconnects with his old partner in crime and cuts a swathe of brutality across Toronto, I mean, across several U.S. states. Lloyd, naturally, feels personally responsible, to the point that, when they're finally face to face again, he can't restrain himself from regretting aloud that he didn't just cut the bastard's throat when he had the chance. “What was your recommendation again?” Fontleroy says. “Life in a psychiatric facility with daily, mandatory doses of tranquilizers and anti-psychotics? You know, I'm actually beginning to see your point.” God knows the show expects us to. When the team finds a hotel room with a dead woman lying in the bathtub, Lloyd insists that Fontleroy and his partner will be returning to the scene of the crime, and cites chapter and verse from one of their earlier cases: “After Damien and Brent raped and killed her, they left her in a tub for 24 hours, while they went out and had a steak dinner and caught an 8:00 showing of Corky Romano... Then they came back here and dismembered her.” The possibility that they only went back and dismembered her because they needed cheering up after seeing Corky Romano goes unexplored. For all the gaudy horrors attributed to Behr's character, his scariest, most convincingly evil moment is one of his simplest. After blowing a hole through somebody, he looks into the eyes of the dying man and, with an encouraging smile, says, “Believe it.”
The real pleasures that Breakout Kings affords continue to be the little things, such as the way Lombardozzi kicks off a conversation by tearing open a banana with his teeth, and the moment that Lloyd, deeply offended by the suggestion that his intentions toward Julianne might be less than honorable, says "You're... a lunkhead," pausing to decide on the word that can best communicate his anger without being so insulting that he might get himself decked. It's moments like those that keep you hoping that Breakout Kings will get its act together and turn into something. I'm not sure why it doesn't add up to more, but it probably has something to do with the way that the cast resolutely fails to click together. To their credit, the producers haven't been content to just shove the thing off the roof and watch it plummet. The brought Swan in to replace the cast member who originally played the hot-woman character in the pilot, and they shake things up in this episode with a development that could conceivably liven things up. It could also conceivably just destabilize the whole series. The show's willingness to take risks rather than settle for its own mediocrity is a sign of hope, even if it hasn't yet resulted in a show that qualifies as appointment television. But, for the moment, call it a work in progress.