Breakout Kings: Room for One More Caper Show?



Special operatives and caper shows have become a successful programming staple of cable networks. They contain recognizable elements of procedural programs like lab shots and tons of gadgets and high-tech toys, but they also inject far more humor and character development into story lines. Sometimes there's so much emphasis on personality that the mystery/detection portion is neglected, but overall it's a lot more fun to see witty exchanges and outrageous situations rather than another closeup of a decomposed body or slow-motion recap of a killer cutting someone's eyes out.

Currently the prime models are USA's White Collar, In Plain Sight, Burn Notice and Psych, while TNT's roster includes Leverage (The Closer and Southland are more traditional cop dramas). Now A&E has entered this arena with Breakout Kings, airing 9 p.m. Sundays. It's produced by the crew who did Fox's Prison Break, so it's no surprise they retained the best part of that show's first two stellar seasons: convicts in peril. Only this time no one's trying to get out of jail. Instead, they have been recruited to become the hunters rather than the hunted.

A tough-talking, hard edged U.S. marshal (The Wire's Domenick Lombardozzi) and an even grittier former Marine turned federal officer (Lax Alonso) wants to form a special team. This ensemble will tap the expertise of assorted criminals to catch others breaking the same laws that landed them in prison. Every time the group successfully completes an assignment, one month is taken off everyone's sentence. But if even one person tries to escape, all bets are off, and the entire group must serve their full time with additional months tacked on.

Others in the cast are Serinda Swan, Malcolm Goodwin and Jimmi Simpson, playing characters whose skills range from expert tracking to weaponry, scams, tactics and intimidation. But Breakout Kings will rise or fall on two things. Any crime buff who watches White Collar or Leverage (as well as ABC's Castle) will acknowledge that no one writing these shows is a match for a mystery scribe like Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly, James Patterson or Walter Mosley in terms of crafting puzzling, ultra-sophisticated scenarios. These shows work because of their characters' charm and ability to divert and engage audiences as they navigate their often implausible cases.

If Breakout Kings does that, or offers the crackling, intense dialog and confrontations that were the hallmark of Prison Break's first two seasons, A&E may finally get a landmark show. If not, it will go down as a clever concept whose execution doomed it to failure.

Snorcerer's Apprentice
Will Donald Trump run for president? The more urgent question is: Would America elect a president whose idea of sound business prospects includes Gary Busey, Lil' Jon and La Toya Jackson? That's the train wreck now rolling every Sunday, as the 11th season of Celebrity Apprentice sits steaming on NBC (WSMV-4). Since the network hasn't had a Top 10 hit since football season ended, it desperately hopes this edition, whose roster of singers and actors includes some previous hitmakers and even an Oscar winner (Marlee Matlin), can bring ratings glory. How could it miss, with a galaxy of stars led by Star Jones, NeNe Leakes, Richard Hatch and David Cassidy? (And don't forget John Rich.)

NBC's had four shows over the last two years aside from Sunday Night Football to crack the Top 30 on a consistent basis. They are Law & Order: SVU, The Biggest Loser, America's Got Talent and this one — a fact that speaks volumes about the state of 21st century network television as a whole and NBC in particular. If Trump definitely decides to run, maybe NBC could combine them into a single show — America's Got the Biggest Loser.

Cavett remembers
Though Jack Paar and Johnny Carson remain the titans of classic late-night TV talk (with Steve Allen, Tom Snyder and Bob Costas also in the conversation), Dick Cavett was a great host and conversationalist as well. He never garnered the ratings or audience of his former boss Carson, but his ABC program (1968-1975) blended great guests and top performers in a manner unmatched by anyone before or since. Cavett later did talk shows for PBS, USA, HBO and CNBC, but it was the ABC show (of which many of the finest episodes are now available on DVD) that cemented his reputation and importance.

Cavett began his career as a writer, however, and is as acerbic, witty and unpredictable in print as on the air. Since 2007 he's been doing an online column for The New York Times, where he alternates political opinions with showbiz reflections and general comments on everything from manners to cuisine, language and fashion. His new book Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets (Times Books) compiles Cavett columns from 2007-2010.

Cavett's views don't neatly line up on the political spectrum. His dismissals of former President Bush and his cabinet members will have those on the right proclaiming him just another showbiz liberal. Yet plenty on the left were outraged when he defended Don Imus during the Rutgers controversy, and were less than enamored of his warm friendship with William F. Buckley and his effusive praise for John Wayne.

Here, he also offers assessments of and reflections on memorable on-screen moments. These range from heated encounters with Norman Mailer to barbed responses to a hostile local radio DJ. In addition, he provides accounts of interviews with Katherine Hepburn, John Updike, John Cheever and Richard Burton. Dick Cavett's always enjoyed stirring things up; he does that quite often and well in Talk Show.

CORRECTION, 11:39 a.m. 3/16: White Collar title fixed.

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