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A Silky Smooth 'Thief'
Braugher Takes It to the Bank in FX Drama

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"Braugher" rhymes with "power," conveniently enough. Of all the actors working in episodic television, no one has more of it than Andre Braugher, former star of "Homicide: Life on the Street" and current star of "Thief," the latest in-your-facial drama from the FX cable network.

FX is known for pushing the envelope, stretching the envelope, jumping up and down on the envelope, and "Thief" is entirely within that tradition (traditions can be established quickly nowadays).

In somewhat the manner of HBO's epochal "Sopranos," FX's "Thief" shows us that crooks have home lives, too, and it plays havoc with old notions of what separates good guys from bad. Braugher plays Nick, a man who meticulously masterminds large-scale robberies, splits up the revenue with his slightly shaggy band of co-conspirators and rushes home to his beautiful wife after work.

Unless it miraculously turns out that Nick is an undercover man for the police -- and that isn't revealed in the first two episodes, suggesting it never will be -- then the hero of the series is a man who operates way outside the law, removes large amounts of money from banks without filling out a withdrawal slip and might even fire a bullet into a gang member who starts acting greedy.

Successful acting on television, of course, takes craftsmanship and skill, but it's also a matter of presence, of chemistry -- a command of the camera that can be honed, perhaps, but not learned. It has to be there, and Braugher has powerful presence aplenty. He builds on it with awesome fluency, winning you over even when playing a criminal.

Although it has no direct relationship to the 1981 Michael Mann film of the same title, the new "Thief" is similarly rich in texture and what might be called a gorgeous garishness. It opens with split-screen views of a parade through San Francisco's Chinatown, but down below the street where the long, slinky dragon wriggles and snorts, Nick and his team are pulling off a spectacular heist armed with computers and explosives.

In the middle of the thievery, Nick has to stop. There's a phone call about some problem his stepdaughter is having. Then, back to the business at hand. But this time the gang has robbed the wrong bank, it seems, ticking off the Chinese Mafia and its godfather, and complications start piling up even faster than bodies. Will Yun Lee is especially effective as Braugher's chief adversary, although they don't meet for a while yet. Like Braugher's Nick, Lee's Vincent is a respectable thief, a man with one foot in the underworld and the other in the -- overworld? Whatever.

There are many kinds of thievery occurring in the country every day, the drama seems to say, whether by a gang such as Nick's, operating on a relatively modest level, or by corporate titans at some conglomerate riddled with corruption, or in Washington itself, where, as Steve Allen used to joke, the nation is served by "the best congressmen money can buy."

Nick has dignity, charisma, finesse; he also has issues. His wife's death in a traffic accident sends him reeling and, unfortunately, brings out whatever hostility had remained latent in the stepdaughter, Tammi, played unlovably by Mae Whitman. The cast also includes Dina Meyer and Linda Hamilton as formidable women involved in the criminal life; Clifton Collins Jr. as a gang member who suffers from an extreme case of regret; Malik Yoba as a gang member with doubts about some of his colleagues; and Michael Rooker as Detective John Hayes, who walks a very wobbly line of moral relativity.

Apparently a "bad cop" caught in some sort of malfeasance, Hayes now plays the sorry role of informer. He reports to a fashionably suited lawyer in the city attorney's office, though during one of their meetings, the lawyer is unsuited, wearing only a towel in a steam bath. So paranoid is Hayes that he insists the lawyer remove the towel, lest he be "wired" in a spot so covert it that it otherwise doesn't show.

Episode 1 ends, and the second begins, with a killing filmed atmospherically in a swamp. Although it opens in San Francisco, "Thief" takes place mainly in New Orleans. It appears this decision was made before the city was devastated by a hurricane, but signs of the destruction, and of the city's attempted comeback ("Rebuilding a Greater New Orleans," reads an optimistic billboard), have been inserted to keep the milieu current.

"Thief," created by Norman Morrill (who wrote tonight's pilot), is a stand-up, standout piece of work, one that works wonders on a seemingly tired genre.

Of Braugher, it can easily be said that whatever the scene and however many other people are involved in it, you can't take your eyes off him -- but he doesn't parade around looking down on the show. Instead, it -- all the fellow cast members -- rises up to meet him.

It's somber, dark, bleak and dank -- but in a, you know, entertaining way. FX has done it again.

Done what again? Whatever it is that FX does so well. It's hard to identify, but nobody else is doing it.

'Teachers'

Gosh, what's more fun than a trashy, crass high-school sitcom that makes teachers look like imbeciles and jerks? TV history is glutted with this specious species, and now here comes another example: NBC's "Teachers," premiering tonight and, if we're lucky, saying goodbye forever in a week or two.

This sitcom isn't wacky in an amusing way. It's wacky in a way that makes you want to see it whacked.

Some of the cast members show promise. And Sarah Shahi, as teacher Tina Torres, shows almost everything. You have no trouble believing she could get a part-time job at the local Hooters (called "Headlights" in the show). Her polar opposite is the prim and reticent Alice, played by Sarah Alexander. That these two could become friends is a promising idea, but the writers are too interested in gags to explore relationships.

The male lead is Justin Bartha as teacher Jeff Cahill, who regards his job as a joke and as an excuse to hang around with his buddy Calvin Babbitt, played in a giggly way by Deon Richmond. Cahill is a cool teacher, we know that, because he wears bluejeans with his sport coat and shares a glib indifference with his students.

Tonight's pilot, directed by the madly ubiquitous James Burrows, opens on a shot of a student asleep at her desk. She isn't the only one who'll be made drowsy by this retread of a retread of a show. Depressingly, it was based on a series of the same title that aired on England's Channel 4. But then, Britons have lousy television too.

Comedies set in high schools have been a plague for years, with cynicism the usual prevailing attitude, and only occasionally something bright and original enough to elevate the form. Among the sorry old stereotypes who pop up in "Teachers" is Kali Rocha as Emma Wiggins, the priggish and dimwitted principal who forbids Cahill and Babbitt to take their classes to see "Romeo and Juliet" because the idiot president of the Concerned Parents Association has filed a complaint.

That might make a nice little sermonette about standing up to censors and snobs -- but say, wasn't it also basically the plot of "Porky's 2"? Ye shall know them by whosoever they crib from, and "Teachers" aims low even when it comes to petty theft.

Thief (60 minutes) debuts tonight at 10 on FX.

Teachers (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4.

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