If FOX's groundbreaking action series “24” leaves television with one lasting legacy, it will be the viability of telling short story arcs. Until relatively recently, stories on TV were told in one of two ways: the sitcom method (in which each episode is perfectly encapsulated and bears little relevance to what comes before or after it) and the soap opera method (in which stories evolve ad infinitum with no discernible conclusion). TV has occasionally experimented with the idea of relating season-long narratives (notably in Stephen J. Cannell's '80s series “Wiseguy”), but it took a hit like “24” for networks to take notice. Now every channel is looking for their “24,” their “Prison Break” or their “Lost.”
FX, long a gambling network, recently unveiled its newest drama, “Thief.” The show is billed as a single-season, six-episode story arc that will unfold like an extended miniseries (a maxi-series?). Unlike NBC's bland wannabe “Heist,” “Thief” unfolds with the class and skill of a major motion picture. Andre Braugher (most famous for his stint on “Homicide”) stars as Nick Atwater, a cool-as-ice career thief leading his small gang of hoods on a routine (for him) bank robbery.
As soon as the show got underway, it was clear that something different was in play here. Directed by Paul McGuine (who's having a pretty good month with this and the release of his new film Lucky Number Slevin), the series has style to burn. It borrows a bit of “24”'s split-screen effect, but amps it up with energy, snappy editing and sharp cinematography.
As is the case with this sort of thing, our man Nick's well-laid plans fall apart. While breaking into a bank vault, his men locate a few extra million bucks in cold, hard cash. Why not add it to the take? Against his better judgment, Nick agrees. Bad move. Turns out the money belongs to some nasty Asian mobsters who don't like sharing their ill-gotten gains. Not even Nick's loyal fence (Linda Hamilton) will touch the dough. This sets up the primary plot for this (one and only?) season of “Thief.”
What really makes the show shine is the attention to character detail. Not only must Nick deal with some angry Asians, a corrupt cop (Michael Rooker, also a busy boy lately with this and Slither) and grumblings from within his own gang (Clifton Collins Jr. and Malik Yoba among them), but he's suddenly faced with the unenviable task of raising his unhappy stepdaughter after his wife is killed in an auto accident. The writing on the show is sensitive and realistic, unlike 80 percent of what's on TV.
Braugher is and always has been a commanding performer. He pulls off his “always in control” character with soul and depth. The setting adds interest as well, taking place in a noticeably post-Katrina New Orleans. Pacing isn't always perfect--some episodes are more exciting than others. Still, “Thief” makes for a tense and dramatic addition to FX's lineup. Hopefully, viewers will take note, encouraging more of this noble experimentation.