The pilots to FX series, most notably “Nip/Tuck,” overwhelm the viewer with information, subplots, oddballs and miscreants. In “Thief” there are criminals of various ethnicities living in several locales and sporting wildly different lifestyles — all robbers and just a single cop — that send the mind reeling: How does this all link together? But as reflected in the brilliant, just-concluded season of “The Shield,” FX has a handle on shaping series in a consistently bracing fashion no matter how many directions a show appears to be headed. And with Andre Braugher as a commanding presence, “Thief” should reap considerable rewards as this New Orleans-centered underworld tale plays out.
“Thief” is one of several recent shows that celebrate criminal masterminds (“Hustle,” “Heist,” etc.). Braugher revisits the take-no-prisoners intensity he brought to Lt. Frank Pembleton on NBC’s “Homicide,” playing Nick Atwater, the brains behind a vault-robbing team who also has a home life with a wife and stepdaughter; they overlap at the most unfortunate times.
All action emanates from Atwater. Characters are drawn quickly and neatly in the first two episodes; only Jack, a crook with a conscience played with quiet nuance by Clifton Collins Jr., is observed outside his life of crime. Stepdaughter Tammi (Mae Whitman) is an annoying presence but helpful in fleshing out Atwater’s personality.
Viewers need some warning: Don’t get too attached to any of the characters. Within two episodes, three or four people who appear to have steady jobs on the series are offed. It’s pushing the current trend of killing off series characters to a new limit — we barely get to know these people.
In two cases — we’re trying to avoid a spoiler here — the deaths increase the drama with Nick’s family and business relationships. Nick appears to have reached his spot in life by being the rational one capable of thinking smartly while under pressure, and in the first two episodes, he really only makes one mistake.
Nick and his band of thieves, Elmo (Malik Yoba), Gabo (Yancey Arias), Izzy (Clayne Crawford) and Jack (Collins), break into a vault; each man is looking at a six-figure payday.
Bad news, though. The jewels they nabbed aren’t as high grade as believed, and the bulk of the cash they purloined belongs to the Chinese mob. Roselyn (Linda Hamilton), the fence, refuses to launder the cash and, fearing retribution, ultimately returns it to the mob.
Separately, Nick is dealing with his stepdaughter, whose boyfriend is part of a computer theft. And, apparently even more removed from Nick and his team is New Orleans detective John Hayes (Michael Rooker), a dirty cop in turmoil. Dots are connected between Hayes and the Chinese mob, though exactly what role he plays in the overall scenario is a mystery. His biggest battle is with his wife, who is threatening to pack her bags and bolt.
All of it, though, comes back to Nick, who feels responsible that his team got shortchanged. They quickly move on to a scheme to rob the U.S. government’s spending cash designated for use in Colombia to pay off locals in the South American drug wars.
Like plots on “Hustle,” “24” and “The Shield,” there’s a bit of incredulousness that comes with each caper. But with persuasive writing, sharp visuals and editing, as well as a steady directorial hand, “Thief” is always convincing.