A dark cloud hangs over “The Last Panthers,” literally and figuratively. Though scenes in this ambitious French drama are set all over Europe, the sun rarely comes out, whether the characters are in a Belgrade apartment complex, a ramshackle camp in Hungary or a busy intersection in London.
But the overcast skies help set the mood for this worthy six-part series, in which the seedy underbelly of Marseilles serves as the hub of a complex web of crime and corruption. Much of what transpires comes off as an homage to complex dramas like “The Wire” and “The Shield,” and though “The Last Panthers” isn’t in the league of those American classics, it’s a credible and illuminating look at the movement of cash, guns and lucrative contracts in the interconnected Europe of today. It may be fiction, but a scan of the headlines makes it feel like a distillation of the facts.
The series opens with a crisply executed diamond heist, but the gems are merely the MacGuffins that put several core players in motion in the U.K., France and Serbia. Khalil (Tahar Rahim), the Marseilles cop investigating the theft, has fewer resources than Naomi (Samantha Morton), a dogged insurance investigator hired to recover the diamonds. Though their paths diverge fairly early on, they’re both intent on figuring out who benefited from the theft and what damage might be caused by the ill-gotten gains.
The first couple of episodes make it clear that Milan (Goran Bogdan), the ringleader of the experienced crew of thieves, has a tangled past in Bosnia and Serbia, as does Naomi, who once was part of the U.N. forces during the ’90s wars in the former Yugoslavia. Naomi and Milan are haunted by their past compromises — which are slowly revealed via flashbacks — and there are parallels between the characters and nations like Serbia and the U.K., which are now on a very different footing than they were two decades ago.
Khalil’s checkered past also informs his present: As a kid, he and his friends engaged in petty crime that became more serious as time went on, but he decided to become a cop. Unfortunately for him, he has a brother who now works for the very people the local police would like to catch, and in a somewhat parallel story line, Milan also has a brother whose problems complicate his life.
Much of “The Last Panthers” is based on the reporting of French journalist Jerome Pierrat, a co-creator of the drama, and the fluid, dynamic work of director Johan Renck also gives the series a grounded, realistic feel. This is not the Europe of glittering capitals and touristy landmarks; the show spends most of its time in back alleys where hard men do deals for illicit weapons, and in rundown housing complexes where residents know better than to rat out the local kingpins. The Marseilles depicted here is a city where violence and gun battles have become a fact of life; terrorism in European capitals may be receiving much of the media’s attention, and deservedly so, but it’s clear that criminal crews operating locally and internationally are also an enormous problem, and they are clearly not unconnected to other kinds of unrest on the Continent.
Not only are the skies gray, but most hallways and apartments are filled with the sickly green pallor of artificial lights, as well as quietly seething resentment. Even when the action takes place at a slick soiree full of finance types who’ve converged on Belgrade, the drama contains an undercurrent of quiet nausea; the party is full of sex workers who are there to entertain potential investors, and the women wear ribbons denoting whether or not their services are reserved for VIPs.
Sundance TV has carved out an admirable niche with dramas that convey a rich and textured sense of place, among them “Rectify,” “Top of the Lake” and “The Honorable Woman,” and the network’s latest offering fits comfortably into that category. And though it doesn’t primarily take on the issue of emigration as such, “The Last Panthers” does a fine job of demonstrating how the movement of euros, people, weapons and investment funds are all linked in a multitude of ways, many of them morally and legally questionable. Direct connections between the investing classes and street-level criminals are dangerous, of course, but that’s where go-betweens like Naomi’s boss, Tom (John Hurt), come in. Naomi is clearly damaged, but her obsessive curiosity keeps her on a more or less ethical path, while the suave, cynical Tom has seen it all and just wants to cash out while he can.
Where the show comes up a bit short is in character and clarity. As deals and double-crosses pile up, and as Milan, Naomi and Khalil come across a wide array of businessmen and gangsters looking for a big payday, the drama is sometimes ill-served by its laconic, oblique storytelling style and becomes a bit hard to follow. And though it’s a sad fact of life that not all cops can be as charismatic and memorable as “The Wire’s” Jimmy McNulty or Bunk Moreland, the very slow reveal of backstories in “The Last Panthers” can leave the main characters feeling a little thin and underdeveloped.
That said, Morton, Hurt and Bogdan do fine jobs of making their characters’ varying degrees of cynicism and ferocity extremely watchable. Milan, in particular, carries echoes of Tony Soprano. At one point when on the run from cutthroat former associates, Milan and his mentor, an older gangster, quietly mourn the honor among thieves that used to exist in the old days, when crime meant stick-up jobs and low-level fraud, not corporate contracts for airport “security.”
A pervasive dourness might be an obstacle for some viewers; a few producers of the strange but fabulous French series “The Returned” (“Les Revenants”) also worked on this drama, and a person who watched both might be justified in wondering if smiling has been outlawed in France. At times, writer Jack Thorne and Renck are too devoted to enforcing a uniformly pessimistic tone; almost every shot contains graffiti or litter, and almost every character spends the six hours looking grim or frustrated. (Not for nothing, but “The Sopranos” contained moments of dark comedy, and even “Breaking Bad” used cynical wit with strategic flair.)
Then again, the French program’s seriousness of intent and intelligence of execution are generally admirable. After all, “The Last Panthers” explores a series of systems, formal and informal, that are generally rigged against the likes of Milan and Khalil. “Sometimes things are too rotten to change,” a character says at one point, sounding, as it happens, just like someone from “The Wire.”
“The Night Manager,” “The Last Panthers” and “Confirmation” were discussed in the most recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.