t’s been a slow road back to television for Andre Braugher. Since 1998, when he handed in the badge he wore for five years as Homicide Detective Frank Pembleton, Braugher’s been tough to spot. It hasn’t been for lack of trying; in fact, he was the brightest spot on the failed FOX drama The Jury, and was virtually flawless in the titular role of the killed-too-soon Gideon’s Crossing. Moreover, it just hasn’t felt the same—nothing’s quite matched the intensity of those first few seasons worth of Pembleton. So Braugher’s decided to take it in another direction, and FX’s new drama, Thief, finds him in the lead role once more—this time on the other side of the law.
Thief’s premise is nothing to marvel at: Braugher plays Nick Atwater, a fiercely intelligent (...wait for it...) thief who, along with his crew of wisecracking cons, executes high-risk, big-money heists. Like several other FX’s anti-heroes, Nick struggles to balance his “professional” life with the everyday problems of a family man. But home life goes from bad to worse when Nick’s wife is killed in a car accident, leaving him to raise his (possibly racist, white) teenage stepdaughter, Tammi. Oh, and the last score that Nick and his men ripped off just happened to belong to the Chinese mafia, who seem to be the kind of people not likely to forget that sort of thing.
By the end of Thief’s first episode, two characters that we’ve been led to believe were built to last are dead. By the end of the second, a third is gone, and we’ve attended a rather emotionally draining funeral. Combined with the moody scoring and the oppressively gothic feeling of New Orleans’ bayous and landscape, it adds up to a heaping bowl of misery—one that the show seems to have trouble swimming its way out of.
For another show, it would still be early on in the season, with the potential to move laterally to one of a dozen story threads. But FX has thus far only inked Thief for a BBC-esque six episode run—a proposition which makes the gloom and doom of this season’s first half all the more depressing. Aside from a few quasi-tender moments between Nick and Tammi, and some far-fetched shots of one of Nick’s men soul-searching and agonizing over a wad of cash in a church, none of the characters on Thief show any hope for salvation. This is not to say that all television characters should be redeemable, but certainly a show this heavy needs some kind of lifeline.
Not surprisingly, Thief finds strength in its cast. Given the daunting task of being anguished and/or mopey through virtually all of her scenes, Mae Whitman (best known as Ann Paul Veal from Arrested Development) is stellar as Tammi. Whitman plays hard-shelled and vulnerable in perfectly metered halves, lending a surprisingly genuine quality to what could have become yet another soggy “misunderstood delinquent teenager” role. Even without being entirely familiar with the characters, Tammi and Nick’s hospital scene in the pilot was gut-wrenching, with Whitman conveying the kind of raw emotion that one would expect more from high-ticket ensemble dramas like Six Feet Under.
Though his praises have been sung by innumerable television critics in the past, it’s worth noting that Thief has added yet another impressive role to Andre Braugher’s resume. On a network not known for its understated acting (see: Forrest Whitaker’s season on The Shield), Braugher has brought a quiet intensity and intelligence to Nick Atwater which, more than anything else, lends hope to the future of the show.
By: Chris Nelson
Published on: 2006-04-12