Domenick Lombardozzi, left, and Laz Alonso, center, star in the new A&E… (A&E Network )
A&E's new cops 'n' cons drama "Breakout Kings" proves that mash-ups can work on television too. From the "To Catch a Thief" hook to the team of eccentric specialists, there is nothing here we haven't seen before, including and especially the characters.
The pilot opens with the prison break of a convicted murderer. To capture him, U.S. Marshals Charlie Duchamp (Laz Alonso) and Ray Zancanelli (Domenick Lombardozzi) form a special unit made up of former fugitives: Lloyd Lowery (Jimmi Simpson), former child prodigy and psychology savant; Shea Daniels (Malcolm Goodwin) former gang leader and counterfeiter); sexy con artist "Philly" Rothcliffer (Nicole Steinwedell) and big-game hunter Gunderson (Brock Johnson). Gunderson is quickly sent back to jail after the first episode. Philly's out too, replaced by revenge assassin Erica Reed (Serinda Swan).
Ray has echoes of "The Shield's" Vic Mackey, Lloyd's a well-educated "Mentalist," Erica could easily be the younger troubled sister of "House's" Thirteen and Shea is the wise-cracking criminal-entrepreneur who has shown up in every cop show since the genre was invented.
But just because a show is mix 'n' match doesn't mean it isn't any good. After four years with "Prison Break," creators Matt Olmstead and Nick Santora know their way around this world, and "Breakout Kings" starts out with a promising blend of character and plot, action and dialogue, sweet and savory.
The cons are offered a month off their sentences for every case they crack, and each character uses his or her expertise to make that happen. Tension between the two marshals — Ray, it turns out, is living in a halfway house after stealing on the job — is an inspired B-plot, but it's the cons you care about. They are all serving serious sentences for serious crimes, but here is their chance for redemption. Charlie's added codicil — if any one of them tries to escape, they all go back to prison with sentences doubled — makes each his or her brother's keeper.
But mostly, it's the same sort of safe-crackin', con-runnin', "I knew this guy in the joint who…" fun that infuses the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise, and the cast seems capable of toggling between sass and seriousness. Simpson (best known as David Letterman's "Lyle the Intern") is the actor who seems best positioned for actual breakout — with his damp and pale weediness and all but miraculous insight into human behavior; Lloyd is the team's strongest asset and weakest link.
Still, following a good recipe doesn't necessarily mean the soufflé will rise — a second episode sent out by A&E (it will not be the actual second episode of the series) — is a bit more pat than the pilot and the replacement of Philly with Erica is a bit jarring. Philly is a very strong and assertive (albeit in a regrettably predictable, which is to say sexual, way), and Steinwedell makes her feel like someone you might actually meet behind bars. Swan's Erica is much softer — she killed the men who killed her father, and she has a child she clearly loves. One hopes the change was not made in the belief that although a man can be a real criminal and still sympathetic, a woman needs extenuating circumstances. But it certainly gives Erica more wiggle room, morally, than her male counterparts seem to require.
The challenge each con faces is to learn how to use their talents for good — "I thought about someone other than myself today, Mom," says Lloyd in the pilot — and that's always fun to watch. So here's hoping.