There's a fine line between "good" and "entertaining." Certainly, a TV show can be both high quality and fun to watch. But sometimes the shows that are most enjoyable are weird guilty pleasures, like the defunct Fox show "Prison Break." What started out as a fairly sturdy action drama quickly became a distinctly odd piece of camp -- particularly in the series' third season, which took place in a lawless Panamanian prison.
Though I'd never really call "Prison Break" quality TV, I did love it, and weirdly miss it now that it's gone.
So, I was pleased to see that two of that show's writers and producers, Matt Olmstead and Nick Santora, had created a new show about cops and cons -- "Breakout Kings," which debuts at 10 p.m. Sunday on A&E.
"Breakout Kings" centers on a pair of U.S. Marshals (played by Laz Alonso and Domenick Lombardozzi) who enlist a bunch of convicts to help them catch the biggest and baddest prison escapees. The pilot is great fun and follows the tradition of "rag-tag gang of outlaws" classics like "The Dirty Dozen." We see the cons introduced in prison, get a rundown of their skills, and watch them stare bemusedly as their new bosses explain the rules. It's a winning formula, and the cons themselves are fairly likable, particularly Jimmi Simpson (best known as the most vocal of the creepy McPoyle siblings on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia") as a psychological genius whose gambling problem seemingly landed him in jail.
Now, it's not quite clear how the cons' skills as criminals make them good at catching other convicts. Sure, the Simpson character is brilliant and efficient, but the team probably could have a hired a real psychiatrist -- one who doesn't need to be returned to his cell at the end of each mission. And yes, there's a clever "entrepreneur" played by Malcolm Goodwin who knows how to get things, but I don't think those skills are that hard to find in the real world, either.
So, I'm guessing that the cons are picked less for their gifts as criminals and more for the fact that they require no payment other than time shaved off their sentence. OK -- I can roll with that, as long as it's fun.
And the pilot does have an infectious, sharp energy in the by-play among the cops and their quasi-unwilling new staff. It's neither the tight action of early "Prison Break," nor the anarchy of late "Prison Break," but it's entertaining nonetheless.
However, in the second episode I saw (actually the series' third episode), the funny, charming female con played by Nicole Steinwedell in the pilot has been replaced with a new character -- the dour Erica, played by Serinda Swan. Whereas Steinwedell's character, Philly, was light, bright and perfectly suited to a caper show like this, Swan's Erica is a pain thus far. She whines a lot and it doesn't help that Swan seems to be an even worse actress than "Prison Break's" Jodi-Lyn O'Keefe (who was at least transcendent in her badness, whereas Swan is just run of the mill wooden).
The rest of the cast is a bit hit or miss. Lombardozzi, of "The Wire," is likable as the more shoot-from-the-hip of the two cops, and Goodwin seems fine, though he has little to do, as the smart con Shea. But Alonso is saddled with that cop show cliche -- the by-the-book-cop who puts work before family -- and doesn't find any new notes.
The real standout here is Simpson, who raises the show's game much the way Stacy Keach and William Fichtner elevated "Prison Break" whenever they were on screen. It's a better show when we focus on Simpson's Lloyd Lowry, a creepy but sympathetic character who relishes his new role as crimefighter.
However, even he can't cover up the show's flaws, which include the fact that the team apparently travels using the Insta-Go 5000, that magical invention that allows TV characters to travel from one area of the country to another in mere seconds. Look, I know a show like this requires a suspension of disbelief, but it also needs to be rooted in some kind of reality. Characters hop from Queens, N.Y. to Richmond, Va. to Boston like it's nothing. I'm sorry, but it can be hard to look past that.
There's also some clumsy dialogue and, thus far, the prison escapees being sought by the team aren't very compelling characters. Derek Phillips of "Friday Night Lights" brings a little humanity to a man arrested for child abuse in the later episode, but not enough to make me care what happens to him.
All in all, "Breakout Kings" has potential, but it doesn't quite feel fully formed yet. It definitely is no "Prison Break" (a fact that, I'm sure, will be made painfully obvious by the upcoming return of that show's campy villain T-Bag, played by Robert Knepper). But it is fun and diverting in its own way, so I'll stick with it for a while.