If it takes a thief to catch a thief, then the criminal ensemble of Breakout Kings is vastly overqualified. The premise reads like someone proposed a cross between The FugitiveLeverage and Criminal Minds.

US Marshals form a special task force to chase and apprehend high-profile escaped convicts. To achieve this more efficiently, they enlist the services of… former escaped convicts. The prisoners who make up the team are given the carrot and the stick immediately – assist the feds, and they get a reduced sentence in a minimum-security prison. Try to escape or otherwise step out of line, and they’re back in general population.

The lawful half of the team is made up of a straight-laced investigator Charlie (Laz Alonso, Southland) and shoot-first, ask-questions later ground-pounder Ray (Domenick Lombardozzi, The Wire). Quiet, fragile Julianne (Brooke Nevin, The 4400) plays the analyst/coordinator. Three cons join them in their assignments: neurotic genius psychologist Lloyd (Jimmi Simpson, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), entrepreneurial gangbanger Shea (Malcolm Goodwin, Leatherheads) and seductive confidence woman Philly (Nicole Steinwedell , The Unit). After the pilot Philly goes back to the big house and is replaced by manic murderess Erica (Serinda Swan, Smallville‘s magician Zatanna and Tron: Legacy‘s sultry siren Gem). Executive producers Matt Olmstead and Nick Santora are in familiar territory, having cut their teeth on the well-received Prison Break on Fox.

The premiere sets up the hook of the series: US Marshal Charlie Duchamp finally gets clearance for his grand experiment, a team combining the law enforcement capability of marshals with the experience and cunning of former escapees. His only choice for the project is Ray Zancanelli, an insubordinate and surly marshal who (naturally) gets the job done. Ray’s had his own run-ins with the brass and isn’t too keen on playing guinea pig, but he’s between Duchamp and a hard place. Charlie chooses the inmates, all of whom Ray has chased down and caught at one time or another. The team is given the reduced sentencing deal and set upon their first runner, a bank robber hell-bent on murdering his former accomplices.

Fans hoping for a return to gritty con drama may be disappointed that Breakout Kings follows the more lighthearted case-of-the-week formula that most police shows employ. Even so, the premise is original enough to make jaded police procedural fans (such as your truly) sit up and take notice. A&E should be applauded for taking a chance on a truly original idea in a sea of me-too cop shows.

On Breakout Kings, almost the entire cast – cops included – would be antagonists on other TV shows. Each character suffers from his or her own pop-psych malady, gleefully narrated by former psychology professor and all-around creepster Lloyd. He’s clearly modeled as a more unstable version of Dr. House or The Mentalist‘s Patrick Jane. Lloyd jumps at the chance to classify his teammates and their quarry, dishing out semi-therapeutic observations at the slightest provocation. He’s easily the most active of the cops and the cons, and by far the most fun to watch.

Lombardozzi does his best imitation of The Shield‘s Vic Mackey, to general success. While his actions and dialogue are somewhat cliched, they’re still entertaining. Alonso gets to play the boy scout to Lombardozzi’s bully… figuratively anyway, as Charlie’s got his own nefarious issues. The character is competent if forgettable. Goodwin’s Shea is like a more serious, thoughtful and practical version of the stereotypical street thug, there to contrast with Lloyd more than anything else.

The pilot is quick, funny and irreverent, making some pretty overt shout-outs as an Ocean’s Eleven-style caper turned upside-down (again, not unlike Leverage). Even forgetting the rather ridiculous idea of cops allowing hardened criminals free reign to chase after their fellow inmates, the show manages to juggle extremely flawed protagonists, who-dun-it mystery and classic chase elements.

There are a few small issues with the plot. Lloyd’s powers of observation border on the supernatural, though that’s forgivable considering he’s easily the physically weakest of the group. Erica and Ray are far too similar, and Julianne’s psychological problems seem to exist just so the entire cast can suffer from glaring character flaws.

Little bits of lazy writing are present, too – I can see there’s going to be at least one prisoner making a miraculous escape every episode. Cops seem to ignore obvious leads like a dropped cell phone or stolen prison license plates. And speaking of prisons, why aren’t the cons making use of their time behind bars? They act more like private investigators than criminals most of the time. Where’s the jailhouse grapevine that everyone on Law & Order seems so eager to take advantage of? Where’s the insight into life on the lam? Still, these omissions are few and far between, and no more egregious than other shows.

The second episode is a major thematic change, focusing more on gritty morality and less on the fun antics of deputized criminals. It keeps the lightning pace of the pilot,but focuses more on character drama. Unfortunately, they just aren’t multidimensional enough to care about once they stop frantically pursuing the bad guys and playing off of each other. Maybe that will change over the course of the season, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The entire show feels like a dysfunctional family sitcom superimposed over a cop show, and that’s not a bad thing, but trying to make it into a gritty crime drama a la The Wire or The Shield just doesn’t fit these characters.

Overall the show is very entertaining when it focuses on the chemistry between the cops and cons and leaves out the emotional tension. High cop drama is best left to more straight shows, like the excellent The Chicago CodeBreakout Kings falls into the same broad category as Castle, The Mentalist and Medium as a standard police procedural with a hook.

If it can maintain its dysfunctional humor and excellent pace, while keeping the tortured psychological melodrama toned down, Breakout Kings can at least be as enjoyable as its contemporaries. With its original premise and fun dialogue the premiere is definitely worth a watch for fans of the genre… I only hope the rest of the show’s freshman season can keep up.

Breakout Kings premieres tonight @ 10 PM on A&E.