Tuned In: New mediocre crime drama 'Breakout Kings' bursts into prime time

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There is a vast disconnect between the TV shows people watch and the TV series people discuss.

People watch CBS crime dramas, but in the social media and real world echo chambers where we surround ourselves with like-minded viewers, CBS crime dramas often are looked down upon as paint-by-numbers junk.

That's the only way to explain how "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior" debuted to more than 12 million viewers last month despite a flurry of jokes on Twitter and Facebook and a critical drubbing (it scored 41 on a 100-point scale at review aggregator site Metacritic.com).

So even though a segment of the TV audience is tired of crime dramas and ready for them to go away already, a broader portion of the audience is not, which is why we have so many of these shows airing in prime time.

Beginning today we can add another to that number, A&E's "Breakout Kings" (10 tonight), which was filmed as a pilot for Fox last year and passed over. A&E resurrected the series and produced additional episodes of a show that's most succinctly described as "Prison Break" meets "White Collar."

U.S. marshals Charlie DuChamp (Laz Alonso, "Avatar") and Ray Zancanelli (Domenick Lombardozzi, "The Wire") decide the best way to catch fugitives is to use fugitives, recruiting a handful of prisoners. In exchange, the inmates get transferred to a minimum security prison, where they stay when not working, and get time cut from their sentences.

Naturally, the prisoners chosen are not the most fearsome of the incarcerated. Dr. Lloyd Lowery (Jimmi Simpson, who played Lyle the intern on "The Late Show With David Letterman") is a tenured professor and "behaviorist" who's in jail for 25 years, possibly due to a gambling addiction. He's the baby-faced, gentlest of the team members.

Ex-gangbanger Shea Daniels (Malcolm Goodwin, "American Gangster") is tempted to run while on assignment but doesn't. Con artist Erica Reed (Serinda Swan, "Smallville") really just wants visitation time with her daughter -- and to get out of prison with enough of her life left to enjoy the more than $1 million she has socked away in a bank.

Executive produced by Matt Olmstead ("Prison Break") and Nick Santora ("The Guardian"), "Breakout Kings" is not a smart, sophisticated show. It will have limited or no appeal to fans of "Mad Men" or "The Good Wife," series that put their characters front and center. But it is a more entertaining, better produced series than the cruddy-looking "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior."

"Breakout Kings" at least makes some effort, especially in a future episode made available for review, to explore the internal lives of its characters and offer examples of what makes them tick.

Dr. Lowery, in particular, offers hints of a complicated, potentially interesting background that's full of mommy issues and empathy for others, including the team's office manager, Julianne Simms (Brooke Nevin), who suffers from a social anxiety disorder.

Lowery also gets the bulk of the show's lighter moments, including his attempts to reassure the mother of a kidnapped child in tonight's pilot: "Ma'am, if it's any consolation, there's absolutely nothing in Tillman's pathology to suggest he'd do anything sexual with your daughter -- he's strictly a killer."

Out of context, there's little humor to be found in that bit of dialogue, but in the context of a show that so obviously will not allow a kidnapped child to die, Lowery's miscalculation counts as one of the premiere's dialogue highlights.

The episode opens with a prison break by murderer August Tillman (Jason Cerbone, "The Sopranos"), which kicks off the show's first pursuit, introducing the characters and the rules they must abide by. They're only allowed to have cell phones while working, and they don't get access to weapons. (The show violates that last rule in upcoming episodes; publicity stills show the cons carrying guns.)

The prison break in the premiere is crafty and complicated, but a future episode shows a convict (who turns out to be innocent of the crime for which he's been sentenced) escaping while a film crew is on the prison grounds in a scene so preposterous as to be a head-slapper.

There are no television breakthroughs in "Breakout Kings," a pretty pat procedural that tries a little harder than some of its predecessors. It has all the hallmarks of one of those shows that nobody talks about but plenty of people watch.

Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published March 6, 2011 5:00 AM


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