Since its inception, The Sopranos has portrayed its Mafia underboss protagonist as an upper-middle-manager, a status that's taken on a new dimension this season with the elaborate dream sequences that find Tony trapped in the life of a traveling salesman, rolling luggage and all. Another series deglamorizing its criminal hero as a corporate cog and solid suburbanite debuts tonight on FX in Thief (10 p.m. ET). Some of the opening lines of dialogue involve a team of safecrackers taking bets on when one of their expecting wives will deliver her baby, a familiar kind of office pool. A character hosing spilled blood off his back patio has the air of a man out watering his garden shrubs.
"I'm in a meeting right now," Nick Atwater (Andre Braugher) says into his cell phone near the top of the pilot. This has some truth to it: Nick's crew has assembled itself in San Francisco to snatch some jewels from a vault, and—in a rare deviation from one Nick's meticulous plans—to pick up some cash they've happened upon. At the other end of the line is a policeman; back home in New Orleans, Nick's stepdaughter, Tammi, has gotten herself in a bit of trouble, and the authorities would like to speak to the man of the house. Braugher's brisk manner, like his dedication to precision, is that of a surgeon: Will these distractions never cease? Can't a man get his (bank) job done?
Apparently not. One member of Nick's crew is a steaming hothead, and another is a sweaty cokehead. A third—guilty, gloomy, on the verge of cracking up and maybe rolling over—is dumping thick rolls of bills into collection plates. (The fourth, relatively free of trouble, is merely obliged to sex the series up by sleeping with his art dealer.) Further hassles: The cash that the crew picks up is the property of a Chinese mobster. After Nick discusses this matter with both his team and the big boss (Linda Hamilton, entrancingly imitating a brittle Stockard Channing), he decides to return the money. However, the victim is disinclined to forgive and forget and dispatches a hit man to New Orleans to teach some lessons. Meanwhile, Nick's wife dies in a car accident, leaving him to attend to Tammi, who didn't care for him even before she suspected he was a crook. Then she sees him shoot a guy. And in one of show's periodic concessions to hackneyed genre conventions, a dirty cop, overeager to redeem himself, is sniffing around the gang.
You are correct to surmise that Thief lays it on thick. The hit man himself has a neurotically quivering trigger finger; the damage done by Hurricane Katrina gets appropriated as atmosphere. (The show otherwise goes easy on the Big Easy seasoning: Though it gives you whiffs of down-home religion, hints of racial tension, and a handful of decent accents, mostly, in the way of local color, it gives you ceiling fans.) The show would probably be too ponderous to enjoy if Braugher weren't an actor of tremendous restraint. His performance is about his potential energy—his looks of grief that surface and get swallowed, of anger that rises and recedes—and his scenes with Mae Whitman, who plays Tammi, have a fantastic tension.
"Tense" is the operative concept on Thief—nervous exhaustion, tight plotting, claustrophobia. It entertainingly merges the pressures of the working day with the pleasurable constrictions of film noir. At one point, setting up what will be the season-long central heist—taking $40 million in covert war-on-drug money from the U.S. government—Nick discovers himself bargaining with an accomplice. Without this guy's cooperation, this score might not come off. Nick pleads as if he were some subcontractor, or maybe even Willy Loman: "We've done a lot of business together."