A distraught mother is at the police station with her teenage daughter, who has been picked up after a break-in at her school. Mom is on the phone with her husband, and finally hands it over to a police officer, who wants to lecture the girl's father.
"I'm in a meeting right now, officer," Dad says calmly, while behind him, his associates are emptying out a bank vault beneath the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown.
This is one of the earliest scenes from Thief, the newest crime drama series on television - and quite possibly the best. Premiering at 10 p.m. Tuesday on the basic cable channel FX, Thief features a superb ensemble cast, led by veteran TV actor Andre Braugher.
An Emmy winner for his intense performances as a cop in the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street, Braugher now works the other side of the street as the gray-haired leader of a ring of professional thieves who get together only when there's a big score to be made.
This might sound vaguely like another new crime drama called Heist that premiered on NBC earlier this week (see profile of Heist star Dougray Scott on Page 3), but there should be no confusing the two series. While presented as a slick, Ocean's Eleven-type caper story, the characters in Heist aren't much more than cartoon cutouts, so viewers are left not caring whether they succeed in their own big score or not.
Thief, in contrast, is a much darker and grittier program, and it's not so much about the score as about the people planning it, and how they wrestle with their respective moral codes to justify some of the ugly things they wind up doing. Consequently, we care at least as much about the characters as the intricate crime they're planning.
It's the kind of multilayered character development that's become a trademark of FX, the cable network that in recent years has all but supplanted HBO as the source of top-notch original series. FX has previously served up such meaty offerings as The Shield (which ended its season run Tuesday), Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck, and the short-lived but outstanding series about soldiers fighting in the Iraq war, Over There.
Braugher's Nick Atwater is a typically nuanced FX lead character - cool and steady, trying to keep his crew in line and his family life separate from his work. (Sound at all like another conflicted crook by the name of Tony Soprano over on HBO?)
Atwater has a tense relationship with his 14-year-old stepdaughter Tammi (played by young Mae Whitman from Arrested Development) and he feels an obligation to help his criminal colleagues keep their heads above water - and for some of them, that's not easy.
The bank robbery in the premiere episode is supposed to yield a cache of gems, but when the robbers also turn up a big pile of cash that belongs to the Chinese mob, it marks them as targets of an Oriental hitman played with understated menace by Will Yun Lee (Die Another Day).
That relentless threat, plus the attention of a local cop, complicate matters as Atwater and his crew try to plan their biggest job ever, the theft of a secret stash of $40 million from the U.S. government, money that's intended for the war on drugs in South America.
Thief was supposed to be set in New Orleans, and the pilot episode was shot there, but after Hurricane Katrina, subsequent shooting had to be relocated to Shreveport, La. But there are still scenes of post-Katrina New Orleans, and that could figure into episodes later in the season.
Unfortunately, that season won't be a long one, as the new series is slated for only a six-episode run. But if we're lucky, the ratings will persuade FX to bring the show back in the fall, and we'll get to see more of Braugher and his not-so-merry band of men as they struggle to deal with danger, their consciences, and each other.