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'Thief': A Standout Cops-and-Robbers Series

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The actor Andre Braugher won an Emmy for his role on the brilliant ‘90s NBC cop drama Homicide: Life on the Streets. He's back now on series television again, with a premiere of Thief on FX. That's tonight. But he's on the other side of the law. Critic Andrew Wallenstein says that whatever elevates this crime story is the force of Andre Braugher's performance.

(Soundbite of “Thief”)

Mr. ANDRE BRAUGHER: (As Nick Atwater) How many gigs have we done together? Eleven, 12? San Francisco, the only hiccup; all the rest, DHL, the banks, Tulsa, you name it, done right. Money all around, nobody gets hurt. It's win-win. We've been good. Some might even say the best.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN, reporting:

I don't know if it's the best, but the new Andre Braugher drama Thief is a refreshing update of the usual cops and robbers caper. It seems like everywhere you look nowadays, there's something new on that subject, from the Spike Lee movie Inside Man to the NBC drama Heist. And yet, I found there's something distinctive about Thief, which gives the genre a well-deserved tweak. You see, most caper stories are all alike, one-dimensional displays of the incredible precision and calculation that goes into pulling off a big score. More often than not, these con men are slick and charming, like George Clooney in Ocean's 11.

At first glance, Braugher's character, Nick Atwater, might seen like Clooney rehashed. He's cunning and charismatic as the leader of a crew of thieves. Emotions don't get the best of him, as we see in this scene in which he kicks out a reckless member of his crew.

(Soundbite of “Thief”)

Mr. BRAUGHER: (As Nick Atwater) Now, anybody not down with this? Wanna change of pace? Feel like you wanna do things your way? You take your chips and bounce, adios, because this is my way or the highway. Are we clear?

Mr. CLAYNE CRAWFORD: (As Izzy Driscoll) That's not what this is about.

Mr. BRAUGHER: I'm not finished. Izzy, you're out.

WALLENSTEIN: But Thief pulls a few nasty tricks on Nick Atwater that elevates the story beyond the usual cat and mouse caper. We see him get blindsided by personal tragedy that affects his family, who know nothing of his criminal life. And some of Atwater's schemes go wrong, as in this scene, when his crew reacts to the news that they have to return money from their latest score.

(Soundbite of “Thief”)

Unidentified Man #1: Nick, I can't go home like this. I got people with their hands out as soon as I show my face. People I can't dance with anymore.

Unidentified Man #2: Same here.

Unidentified Man #3: What the hell are you talking about, you ain't got no family.

Unidentified Man #2: I got loan sharks...

Mr. BRAUGHER: Okay, I get it, I get it.

Unidentified Man #3: Nick, you always got something on the bubble.

WALLENSTEIN: Braugher is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, as this crew goes--including Malik Yoba, Yancey Arias, and Clifton Collins, Jr. That they manage to hang with Braugher at all is great. He's one of the handful of television actors who mesmerize, regardless of the material handed to him. That said, the trouble with staffing a show centered on Braugher is that the weak links in the cast fail all the more spectacularly. There are sizable subplots in “Thief” that are listless without him, from the crooked cop working Atwater's case to the Chinese Mafia henchmen out to shut him down.

But Braugher is in enough scenes to make this show a compelling character study. If you're up for more than just the usual snatch-and-grab story, “Thief” is there for the taking.

CHADWICK: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at The Hollywood Reporter. The show Thief premieres tonight on FX. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.
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