Breakout Kings debuts tonight on A&E at 10 p.m. Eastern.
For all of the things that were problems on Fox’s serialized clusterfuck Prison Break—gladiator prison, dead characters coming back to life, a mentally ill man getting the idea to sail to Denmark from a painting, Michael’s first great foe in the first season midpoint cliffhanger being a pipe, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE CONSPIRACY STORYLINE—the moment when it became obvious the show was nothing more than a goofy guilty pleasure came after it returned from its first season midseason hiatus. Fox had been surprised by the show’s popularity but was forced by various issues in its schedule to keep new episodes off the air for a ridiculous amount of time. When the show came back, it had to force everyone back into their cells (they’d been in the midst of an elaborate escape attempt), leaving lead Michael up against the ticking clock of his brother’s imminent execution with no plan B. And this led to a make or break moment for the show: Kill brother Lincoln and the show could truly be the gritty, serialized story it purported to be. Leave Lincoln alive through some improbable deus ex machine and the show would expose its fundamental unseriousness.
You can probably guess which way the show’s producers went. Honestly, even as Lincoln was strapped into the electric chair, everybody in the audience knew he would get out somehow. It was just a question of how. The show was nothing it pretended to be. It was just an insanely plotted piece of sugar-sweet, serialized candy. It might have been fun to chew for a while, but it got less and less appetizing once you started having to digest it. For a while there, everybody LOVED Prison Break (I did too), but the show was never going to be one for the ages. It just didn’t have it in it to be the kind of series that takes big chances and delivers huge rewards. It often seemed to be a serialized show run by people who’d seen an episode or two of 24, shrugged, and said, “Yeah, I guess we could do that?”
Well, Breakout Kings, the new series from Prison Break vets Matt Olmstead and Nick Santora, feels like the two watched a few episodes of a CBS crime procedural and decided to tackle that task next. It’s a glumly formulaic hour that wastes the one interesting element it brings to the formula and doesn’t bother to find anything fun to do with the step-by-step process of tracing criminals to begin with, instead proceeding through storylines as though it’s slowly checking off a series of boxes that feel more mandatory than anything else. It gives a good sense of where Olmstead and Santora’s headspaces are to consider that the most interesting, inventive part of every episode happens within the first couple of minutes, when the criminal of the week breaks out of prison. Even if they’re making a formulaic procedural, some part of them will always be making Prison Break.
At the show’s center is a highly unusual, highly skilled crime-solving team. Heading up the team are marshals Charlie Duchamp and Ray Zancanelli (Laz Alonso and Dominic Lombardozzi, respectively), with an assist from the closed-off and somewhat mysterious Julianne (Brooke Nevin). The two supervise a group of convicts that were chosen by Ray for how well they were able to evade his capture after they broke out of prison and for his belief that they’ll be willing to work with the feds to recapture escaped prisoners, instead of taking advantage of the situation to try to flee. (Charlie, recently transferred from a desk job, just takes Ray’s word for it.) The convicts include brilliant psychologist Lloyd Lowery (Jimmi Simpson), who mixes his brilliance with a side of not being able to read social cues; sassy African-American guy Shea Daniels (Malcolm Goodwin); token hot chick “Philly” Rothcliffer (Nicole Steinwedell); and grizzled old convict Gunderson (Brock Johnson). In the second episode, for some reason, Philly’s been kicked aside in favor of a virtually identical character named Erica Reed, only this one is played by Serinda Swan (this is not a trade up).
At its most basic level, this is a pretty great premise for an action-packed TV crime drama. Assembling an elite team to pull off incredible tasks is often fun on TV, and the added element of jailhouse life and convicts having to help out adds just enough of an air of goofiness to escape the fact that much of this, like most of the CBS lineup, is ridiculously glum and overwrought for no good reason. What’s more, the cast Olmstead and Santora have assembled is full of ringers, likable actors TV fans will have good associations with from seeing them elsewhere. Hell, their two leads both hail from other, better cop shows (Alonso from Southland and Lombardozzi from The Wire). That deftness with the actors extends to the guest cast, where plenty of fine actors pop up as the bad guy of the week or in a handful of scenes. (Derek Phillips, Friday Night Lights’ Billy Riggins, turns up as a man locked away for child molestation in the second episode sent to critics.) And tonight’s pilot has a real sense of scale and scope, probably stemming from the fact that it was produced for Fox, before that network rejected it and sent it searching for a cable home. (The second episode is much more obviously shot on a cable budget, and not to its credit. It also features Swan, who gives one of the most hilariously flat starring performances in a long, long time.)
But the show can’t pull its great premise, great actors, and great TV direction together into anything more than a muddled mess. There’s nothing wrong with crime dramas or with formulaic TV, but on a TV landscape crowded with shows about elite teams full of wisecracking smartasses tracking down the bad guys, it takes a lot to stand out. In a world that already has Justified, Fringe, White Collar, Leverage, Hawaii Five-0, The Mentalist, Castle, Bones, and hell, even Psych (to list just a few of the MANY much better shows that play with this same general concept on the air right now), why was there a need for this show?
The answer, presumably, could have come from having the criminals apply things only a criminal would know to the various situations they encounter, applying jailhouse logic to the outside world in ridiculous ways. Instead, the convicts just turn into the cops you’d see on any other show like this, as if they've realized Ray and Charlie have hired them to clean out the barn and put on a CBS crime drama. The old man hunches over a pool of blood and says gloomy, vaguely insightful things about the criminal. The brilliant but offputting man offends everyone before coming up with the solution. The hot girl gets into lingerie. The African-American guy says funny things. It all feels rote, as though Olmstead and Santora are just trying to give the networks what they think the networks want but haven’t really thought these characters through beyond the broadest of types. And when all else fails, they pummel the audience with sheer awfulness, hoping that repeatedly threatening small children will get us invested via the cheapest of means.
Tonight’s pilot still isn’t an awful episode of television. Olmstead and Santora DO know their way around a surprising twist, and they deploy said twists fairly deftly in both tonight’s episode and the next one. Plus, the direction is always keeping things moving and making things feel bigger and more epic than they actually are, in a way that makes continuing to watch fairly easy. The show, at least, is propulsive, so long as you don’t stop to think about it. But the next episode is somehow much, much worse, trying too hard to fit some twinkly melodrama into the storyline and looking much cheaper than the pilot. And it’s easy to feel Olmstead and Santora, who gleefully kept coming up with more and more incomprehensible plot twists on their old show, feeling constrained by the limits of their new universe. They have to do this all over again? And every week? Yes, they do, and the sense of deflation the show gets as this happens carries out to the audience.