Calling The Last Panthers a show about a jewel heist is like saying The Wire was a show about drug dealers. Though it has to be said: The six-part limited series, premiering tonight on SundanceTV, might be the best crime drama since The Wire in its heyday. Created and written by Jack Thorne (2014’s Glue, the BBC’s upcoming His Dark Materials adaptation), The Last Panthers is loosely based on the case of the Pink Panthers, a gang of jewel thieves from the Balkans who’ve pulled off spectacular robberies across Europe over the past 15 years. (Check out this amazing 2010 David Samuels feature in The New Yorker.) The show could not be better timed.
The Last Panthers, which originally aired last fall on Sky Atlantic, feels like a televisual chapbook on Europe’s recent past and volatile present. It starts with a daring robbery in Marseille, but deftly touches on the aftermath of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the international criminal underground, the porousness of borders, corruption and moral decay in European police forces, and the shadowy world of big-money insurance underwriting. (Follow. The. Money.) Mostly, though, it’s about identity.
Are you a cop? Are you a criminal? Are you French? Serbian? What does that mean? Who are you loyal to — country or corporation? Blood or badge? These tensions manifest themselves in the performance of Tahar Rahim. Best known for his volcanic turn in A Prophet, Rahim plays Khalil Rachedi, a Marseille cop waging a stubborn war on his fellow policemen, gun-running gangs, and his own past. There are other finely tuned, lived-in performances, from Samantha Morton (an insurance investigator looking into the robberies) and Goran Bogdan (one of the Panthers), but the image of Rahim, wearing a black turtleneck and somberly smoking in his cramped apartment (I mean, he is French), will stay with you for a long time after the end credits.
The great promise of Golden Age television was depth of storytelling and large-scale world creation — you could go deeper, stay longer, and discover more. For American viewers, the world of The Last Panthers might be foreign and disorienting, but I promise that you will want to stay awhile.
This piece originally appeared in the April 13, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.