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May 12, 2006 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | May 12, 2006 |

I love me some capers. Whether they involve shenanigans, scams, schemes, stings or even non-alliterative things like robberies or assassinations — if they’re well-executed, I’m a sucker for them every time. I like the flashy and ritzy ones that cater to the popcorn-eating masses, like Ocean’s Eleven (we’ll pretend Ocean’s Twelve didn’t happen and that Ocean’s Thirteen isn’t going to happen) and The Italian Job (again, we’ll pretend that The Brazilian Job isn’t going to happen). I like the grittier ones like Heat and The Score (even though it was a vastly disappointing flick, overall). Hell, I even still enjoy watching The Jackal or Point Break whenever they come on TBS, TNT, USA, F/X, etc.

Point being, this past week was a good one for caper-lovers like me — not only did Inside Man hit the theaters, but we saw the premiere of two new caper shows: “Heist” (NBC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.) and “Thief” (F/X, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.). I was originally only going to do a review of “Thief,” with just a passing mention of “Heist,” because the latter is already more than a week old (in fact, the second episode will have already aired by the time of this publication). However, I ended up TiVo’ing “Heist” and didn’t get around to actually watching it until right before the “Thief” premiere, and the shows are such different takes on the “big caper” idea that it would be critically negligent of me not to discuss them together.

The first of these shows, the Doug Liman-directed “Heist,” offers the glitzy and consumer-friendly caper. The gang of Heisters is led by the charming man-who-was-almost-Wolverine, Dougray Scott, who intends to rob three Beverly Hills jewelry stores in one night. Along the way, it’s clear that the group will have to pull off some smaller capers, like the pilot episode’s bank robbery, to provide funds and other things necessary for the big job, while avoiding the one-step-behind-them detectives. “Thief,” meanwhile, presents a darker and less-glorifying caper with a gang of bandits led by the less-smooth but utterly stellar Andre Braugher. From the pilot, it’s not clear yet what their big job is going to be, but we already know that, along the way, Braugher’s Thieves are going to have to avoid the cops, the Chinese mob and the crooked detective working for the Chinamen. Plus, Braugher is definitely going to have some problems with his step-daughter, and quite possibly with his boss/bank-roller (Linda Hamilton).

Now I like both of these shows, but for very different reasons, and in very different ways. “Heist” reminds me a lot of something like “Prison Break” or “24” — it’s enjoyable if you check most of your brain at the door and let yourself just go for the ride. The dialogue is rather stiff and sometimes obvious (although they did manage to work in a few good laughs). The acting doesn’t really help matters any — for the most part, it comes off kind of hackneyed, although it’s tough to tell whether this is truly the fault of the actors or just a result of the lines they’re being fed. For example, when two of the gang members are chatting in a car (the caricatured idiot Heister and the caricatured hot-chick Heister), we get the following dialogue (and the words don’t do caricatured idiot Heister’s poor delivery justice):

Idiot: For me, it’s not about the money, it’s about the thrill.

Hot Chick: For me, it’s the money.

Idiot: That’s what I meant. Like, the thrill of the money.

Not exactly Shakespeare. But not awful — as I say, you just need to be willing to accept it if you want to enjoy the show. More importantly, to properly appreciate the show, you have to be willing to buy into the fact that the Heisters are clearly going to rely upon coincidences and happenstance to keep the capers smooth and slick. For example, the pilot already gave us two such occurrences: (1) caricatured hot chick Heister is eavesdropping on some unaffiliated robbers, and despite not knowing anything about them ahead of time, she happens to perfectly understand whatever foreign language it is that they speak; and (2) when making a getaway at the end and pulling a taxi-cab switcheroo, the Heisters are prepared to fool the eye-in-the-sky ghetto bird by having the cab-switch take place in a tunnel, but they have no apparent plan for keeping the trailing cop cars away — luckily, the cops come up with their own reason to stop chasing the cab shortly before the switcheroo.

Again, it’s all very smooth and slick and, if you let yourself go along with it, it’s quite enjoyable. “Thief,” meanwhile, is a different creature. The show makes it clear early on that things won’t be so pretty or smooth. Thanks to a coked-up member of the Braugher gang, their opening robbery gets slightly botched and, when they get back to their hidey-hole, this leads to significant infighting and turmoil amongst the Thieves. Worse yet, they violate their own rules by taking more in the robbery than they originally planned, which is why they now have to keep an eye out for those pesky Chinese gangsters. However, unlike the Heisters, the Thieves don’t have witty lines and easy answers to fix everything; they have to resort to darker things like killing said coked-up team member when he won’t go quietly into the night.

Where “Heist” is fun for the slickness and smoothness of the criminal underpinnings, “Thief” is likable for exactly the opposite — the darkness and grittiness of its characters and their relationships, with the capers being almost a simple secondary matter. In fact, “Thief” really plays as more of a character piece, with the underlying theft appearing to be a device to move the characters down a certain path — it reminds me a lot of the still-underappreciated “Rescue Me” (coming back this summer!) in that regard. While I’m intrigued to see what the Thieves have in store, I’m almost more eager to see how things are going to play out between Braugher and his step-daughter, as the pilot leaves them in a precarious situation.

Going into these two shows, I really thought I’d prefer “Heist” because of my above-discussed penchant for the slick and pretty. But as it stands right now, if I were only going to pick one, I’d have to recommend “Thief.” But since I don’t have to choose, I will continue watching “Heist” as well — while I enjoy the smart and engaging television, I have absolutely no problem turning off my brain (with my handy brain-remote) and sitting back for a good ride.

Finally, I want to address something I’ve read in some other reviews of “Thief.” Some critics have complained that Braugher’s anti-hero protagonist is too dark and difficult to root for because he’s not particularly likable (although the reviews also suggest that this will change several episodes into the series’ six-episode run). Quite frankly, I don’t know what the hell these folks are talking about. Sure, Braugher’s Thief isn’t as charming and smooth as Scott’s Heister, but he’s also not a “villain.” He clearly loves his wife and is attempting to do his best with the aforementioned difficult step-daughter (played excellently by Mae Whitman, George Michael’s forgettable girlfriend Ann on “Arrested Development”). In fact, he’s so intent on protecting his family from his criminal goings-on that he has them thinking he works at a car dealership, and he flips-the-fuck-out when the Thieves show up at his house (while his wife is in the hospital, no less), potentially putting his family at risk. In addition to this familial love, he’s already shown a certain sense of loyalty to the rest of the Thieves (well, except for the now dead coked-up Thief, but he was killed to protect both Braugher’s family and the other Thieves). When boss-lady/bank-roller Linda Hamilton says that he should just “screw ‘em” and move on without them, he’s clearly hesitant, and his loyalty to them appears to be a large factor in why he will be taking on the impending big robbery. Sure, he’s morally ambiguous, but if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be an anti-hero.

So the best I can make of it is that these TV critics claim to be wanting their “bad-boy good-guys” to be friendly and slick, and a more realistically rounded character doesn’t cut it for them (because we can’t root for an anti-hero if he is morally ambiguous?). And this position makes no sense to me when these same critics don’t raise similar concerns with Dennis Leary’s considerably more flawed and troubled Tommy Gavin (seriously people, when is he going to get some Emmy love?) or the walking mess that is Tony Soprano. So to those critics, I say balls to you.

Seth Frelich is a television columnist for Pajiba. He lives in Washignton, D.C. and couldn’t be happier that summer “intern season” is finally here.

"Thief" & "Heist" / The TV Whore

May 12, 2006

TV | May 12, 2006 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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