I have sitting in front of me two episodes of Breakout Kings. One of the episodes I liked very much, the other interested me far less. The normally difficult process of judging a television show based simply on the pilot or a couple of episodes is far more difficult when this sort of thing occurs. Should I assume that the pilot (the episode I liked) is what the actual show will feel like or will it be the other episode (which will air third) upon which I should base my opinion?
To backtrack a little, last year, FOX ordered Breakout Kings as a pilot. As the story goes, it tested exceedingly well but FOX opted to pass on it anyway. A&E, however, moved quickly and was able to bring Breakout Kings to the cable network nearly intact, with the majority of the cast as well as producers staying in place. Is then what I saw on the second episode some sort of underlying difference based on whatever requirement Breakout Kings faced when moving to cable or is the episode simply not as good and will the show return to pilot form in subsequent episodes?
Breakout Kings coming from some of the producers of Prison Break (Matt Olmstead and Nick Santora), follows an improbable—or if you live in the real world, ludicrously impossible—team of U.S. Marshals and prison convicts as they go after escapees. Think of it as Prison Break meets Leverage.
The team itself is comprised of Charlie Duchamp (Laz Alonso), Ray Zancanelli (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Julianne Simms (Brooke Nevin) on the cop side of things and Lloyd Lowery (Jimmi Simpson), Shea Daniels (Malcolm Goodwin), and Erica Reed (Sewinda Swan) on the con side. Or, more accurately, that’s the cast of the episodes filmed following the pilot. The FOX pilot (which A&E is still using as the first episode), didn’t include Swan’s Erica Reed as a character, but rather a different female convict named Philly, who is played by Nicole Steinwedell.
Philly’s departure and Erica’s arrival on the team are, very unfortunately, dealt with in episode two which was not available for review. The lack of introduction for Erica makes it extremely hard to determine whether or not her character is a good addition to the show, particularly as Steinwedell’s Philly is one of the highlights of the pilot. In fact, it is the energy and humor that Steinwedell and Simpson (perhaps best known as Mary Lightly on Psych) bring that really make the pilot as good as it is. While there is certainly some humor present in episode made for A&E, it is less than in the pilot and certainly to the detriment of the show.
Where the two episodes do stick closely by one another is in the basic formula. Both episodes feature an escaped convict coming up with some relatively ingenious method for escaping prison, and the team slowly catching up with him. Duchamp is the skeptical cop and Zancanelli is the one who supports the convicts; Duchamp is the buy-the-book guy, Zancanelli the loose cannon. Each of the convicts has their part to play as well – Lowery is a genius and knows all about human behavior, Daniels knows gangs and business (of the illegal variety), and Erica is a tracker.
What also seems to exist in both episodes is the absolute need for the audience not to consider how utterly foolish the entire concept of the team is in the first place. Seriously, the U.S. Marshalls have put together a team of convicts to go after the worst of the worst because… well… apparently law enforcement isn’t up to the task of catching escapees.
The foolish concept only works if the series can distract the audience from it, creating interesting characters, humorous moments, and a decent amount of action in order to make us not think about what this group of people is actually doing. In the pilot, the producers hit the right mix; it’s tough, it’s gritty, and it’s funny. The other episode, in comparison, is exceptionally flat and one’s mind starts to wander, contemplating all the various types of criminals the show can insert down the line if any of the current band leaves. Maybe they’re could be a B team and a C team as well and they could all rotate in every third episode. Maybe they’re could be the Charlie’s Angels’ Breakout Kings squad, where attractive women entrap escaped lotharios. Maybe they’re could be the high tech squad which creates near-future devices which can… oh goodness knows, the point is that it’s not a good thing when you’re watching a television show and thoughts like that pop into your head.
Breakout Kings stands a good chance of being, at least initially, a successful show – there was a lot of buzz around it during pilot season and A&E’s picking up the series has only increased the amount of chatter. It is a dangerous thing though to not have recast and reshot Steinwedell’s scenes – she is great in the pilot and if the audience becomes enamored of her character in the first episode only to have her disappear and be replaced by Swan, they may be distressed. Beyond that, it seems all too easy for the show to quickly devolve into simply tracking down the baddie of the week in monotonous fashion rather than showing the audience anything new, different, and exciting on a regular basis. I fear that Breakout Kings may end up the more flat, more paint-by-numbers series the second episode delivers than what we get in the pilot.
Breakout Kings premieres March 6 at 10pm on A&E.