Judge Gordon Sullivan thought this was a soap opera about zit cream moguls.
It takes a con to catch a con.
Though it's hardly a new thing, the twenty-first century has seen a proliferation of television shows concerned with bad guys catching other bad guys. Though Dexter is probably the most famous example, there's also Leverage and White Collar. A&E's Breakout Kings joins the ranks as a worthy effort, where convicts are given the chance to catch escaped cons. It's a solid premise and the thirteen Season One episodes show promise, even if the series is still trying to find its legs.
Facts of the Case
All Charlie DuChamp (Laz Alonso, Jarhead) wants to do is be a U.S. marshal and catch the bad guys. The problem is he's got a congenital heart defect that's kept him at a desk job for the past six years. Now, though, he's been given a task force specifically designed to catch escaped convicts. On his team are a disgraced marshal (Domenick Lombardozzi, The Wire), a neurotic psychological genius (Jimmi Simpson, Zodiac), a street-smart gang leader (Malcolm Goodwin, American Gangster), and a woman with rage issues (Serinda Swan, Tron: Legacy). In exchange for cooperation, the cons get time off their sentences, one month per case they successfully close. DuChamp hopes that by using crooks to catch crooks, he can keep himself off desk duty, but to do that, he has to keep both sets of crooks from running.
It doesn't get explicitly mentioned until the thirteenth episode, but the Prisoner's Dilemma is central to Breakout Kings. The Prisoner's Dilemma is a classic problem in game theory. Though there are many variants, the basic idea is that the cops haul in a pair of crooks they know committed a crime, even if they can't prove it due to a lack of evidence. They separate the suspects and offer each the same deal: confess and blame your partner and you'll go free; otherwise, if your partner confesses, you're doing the whole bid yourself. The criminals have two options, to confess or not. However, there are three outcomes. Either they both stay silent, in which case everybody wins (or receive some minor penalty in some variations). If they both confess, they each get half a sentence. However, if only one of them confesses, then the other person does all the time. It's a question of cooperation versus betrayal, and how much each partner can trust the other.
That's precisely the situation that Breakout Kings dramatizes. Each of the three cons has a very strong reason to want to get out, and the cops have a strong reason to keep them around. All the cons are told that if one of them runs, then all three will go back to maximum security with their sentences doubled. Thus, it's in their best interests to cooperate, do their jobs, and shave off their months one case at a time. However, that assumes they can trust one another not to run. No one wants to be the stuck holding the bag while someone else makes a run for it. The constant tension of this dilemma gives the show some week-to-week continuity, and it helps that the show's creators know how to put pressure on the characters to make them even more likely to run.
More significant to me, though, is the fact that Breakout Kings focuses as much on the cops as the cons. One of the things about the Prisoner's Dilemma that's frustrating is that it focuses on the prisoners (duh!). However, this series approaches the same problem from the perspective of the cops as well. How do you get the cons to cooperate? It should be a straightforward case of making the punishment (double their sentence) worse than the other outcomes. With this group, at least, it's not that simple, and one of the best parts of the show is watching the dynamics between the cops and the cons.
From the cover art, you'd Lloyd Lowery was the center of Breakout Kings, but that's far from the truth. He's more like the team's Dr. Spencer Reid (Criminal Minds) than its Dr. House (House, M.D.). He's an integral part of the team, but hardly the center. The emphasis is on the team. In that respect, the show is well constructed. After demoing various combos over the first few episodes, things settle down to the team we see on the cover. Everyone has an angle to work, and everyone has enough of a back story to make developing their characters into a long-term concern. Sure, the disgraced cop, the overprotective mother, and the neurotic genius are all pretty stereotypical characters, but the performances keep things fresh in ways that are surprising.
This DVD set does the show justice. All thirteen episodes look like contemporary, standard definition 1.78:1 broadcast quality transfers. Detail is pretty strong, colors are consistent, and black levels strong. The show has a slightly gritty aesthetic, so it's not a reference quality presentation, but there's nothing at all distracting about the look of the show. The Dolby 5.1 Surround mix equally impressive. The show has a nice theme song, and it really pushes the low end of the mix. Dialogue is clean and clear from the center, and the surrounds get a bit of use during action sequences.
Extras include commentaries on the first and third episodes, some deleted scenes, and three featurettes. Together they paint a solid portrait of what it was like to make the show, how it all came together, and the problems it encountered.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Breakout Kings isn't quite there yet. It's obviously trying to juggle the whole "convict of the week" plot structure with the gradual revelation of the characters' motivations and full stories. For the most part this works, and I really enjoyed these thirteen episodes. However, they're a little uneven. Given that this is a thirteen-episode season, there's really some room to grow. The season's finale has a satisfying feel to it, but I can't help but think that something isn't quite gelling in these first few episodes. The insert advertising Season Two tells us "One King will Fall." Hopefully that means the show's creators (which include Prison Break scribe Nick Santora) are still willing to change things up to dial their formula up to perfection. As it stands now, there's loads of potential for, but it's not the runaway success it could be.
I want to love Breakout Kings, if only because of the fine performances, but the uneven development of the show keeps it from being as good as it could. These first thirteen episodes are certainly worth a rental for those looking for something a little different in the police procedural/action television arena.
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