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A&E’s ‘Breakout Kings’ confined by its characters


9 to 10 p.m. Sundays on A&E

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

The title and the premise are near-foolproof. In “Breakout Kings,” a team of imprisoned escape artists are recruited to track down other escapees. It brings to mind warm, fuzzy memories of Fox’s “Prison Break,” with a soupcon of “The Dirty Dozen,” yes?

In fact, “Breakout Kings” originally was filmed for Fox, which passed on the pilot. But the show does boast an upcoming four-episode arc with Robert Knepper reprising his “Prison Break” character, T-Bag. I always try to make room in my DVR for entertaining psychopaths.

Here’s the deal: The prisoners will get a month taken off their sentences for each criminal they apprehend. That’s no small feat, considering they don’t get to carry weapons. And if any members of the dream team try to make a run for it, their sentences will be doubled.

It would make for plenty of suspense — if it were possible to care about the characters. For example, there’s beauty queen con woman Erica (Serinda Swan), an empowered vixen who gives good hair in the first episode tonight, and a withdrawn mother pining for her daughter in the second. I had to check and make sure they were the same character.

There’s a gruff, disgraced cop, a computer expert with a serious panic disorder, and so on. It’s not like the writers weren’t trying. But it’s hard to get a handle on the characters; we don’t even know what they’re in prison for. Maybe flashbacks to their own breakouts would have helped.

There’s one exception: Jimmi Simpson is a hoot as Lloyd, a brilliant behavioral doctor with a gambling problem. You might remember Simpson as Lyle the Intern on “Late Show With David Letterman.” (Fun fact: He’s married to Melanie Lynskey of “Two and a Half Men.”) Lloyd is a genius who can just look at a person to know if they’re hiding something. He’s like “The Mentalist,” except dorkier, with a mother constantly calling to verbally abuse him.

Just don’t call Lloyd a virgin. “Oh, I have sexed,” he reassures his team. “Several times.”

If nothing else, “Breakout Kings” is a nice travelogue of the country’s prisons. Here’s hoping there’s a juicy episode coming up for Stateville. But the gratuitous violence and creepiness will turn off a lot of viewers; at one point, a convicted child molester stares at the girl who put him in prison at a playground. Lately there have been episodes about abused young girls on “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior,” “Shameless” — and, of course, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Can we leave the kids out of it?

Lloyd is the best thing about “Breakout Kings,” but he can’t carry a series. Not even with “sexing” scenes. I’m going to cross my fingers that his character joins up with “White Collar” or “Leverage,” both of which are more memorable shows than this one.

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