Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Last Night of the Panthers

Thanks to the strong critical and popular response to fare like the first seasons of True Detective and Fargo we've recently been blessed with a few more high-quality long-form single-narrative mini-crime-series (or maybe series w/mini self-contained narratives e.g. both seasons of Trudy Tective and Fargo), two of which I just caught up with.

First I caught Jack Thorne's Sundance TV original The Last Panthers - a Europe-spanning crime saga that starts with a Marseille diamond heist and follows the thieves (led by Goran Bogadan) as they try to unload the booty after the original buyers back out due to the heat on them after a child is accidentally killed during the robbery. Storylines 2 & 3 follow the dual investigations into the crime, the first by local French police (led by Tahar Rahim who blew me away in A Prophet), and the second by an insurance company (led by Samantha Morton whom it was nice to see in a prominent role after what feels like forever).

From gun-running, hijacking, drugs, prostitution, loan-sharking and extortion, along the way visits are paid to many corners of the global black market and we're given easily digestible examples of the ways illicit money becomes legitimate political power and the bedrock of respectable fortunes with government and establishment complicity.

It draws a direct line through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Balkan wars of the 1990s to the rise (and fall) of The Pink Panthers - the ring of diamond thieves who pulled off ballsy, brash robberies for years across Europe. Portrayed here as mostly dispossessed soldiers and mercenaries plying the skills they acquired and networks they developed during the civil strife in their new role as international gangsters with a nationalistic stripe, they are more terrifying than the typical hyper-capitalists of western popular lore - imagine bushwhacking remnants from the US Civil War (maybe The Outlaw Josey Wales, the James-Youngers and the fucking KKK rolled into a loose association) organized and ruthless enough to begin seizing political power on a state level.

The scope and scale is epic, but the story succeeds on an interpersonal level as well and that's no easy feat. Each major character is given the emotional grounding to make them relatable and conflicted enough to give some humanity to balance the grimness of the tone. Still, it's neither as sexy as fare like Suburra or the Easy Money trilogy, nor is it as bleak as Gomorrah which are the obvious comparisons that leap to mind. Damn good stuff.

For more historical context, look for the documentary Smash & Grab: the Story of the Pink Panthers it's a fun one with some pretty great security camera footage of some of the heists.

Next up is the highly anticipated HBO miniseries The Night Of from none other than Richard Price. It's the story of a young man improbably claiming innocence after waking from a drug-nap to find the pretty girl he'd just picked up has been murdered. Aside from being the last person to see her alive and having the likely murder weapon on him when he's arrested, the further complications include this all-American kid's middle-eastern descent and Muslim culture, and... actually that's about it.

But y'know... racism.

Plot-wise it's far less ambitious than The Last Panthers - essentially unpacking a single Law & Order episode's worth of story into a more character-centric eight hours - which... is not me doing a good job of selling it, so go back to the part where I said it was a Richard Price joint.

A Richard Price joint is going to mean two important things

1) Details. Certainly one of the keenest observers of the grinding wheels of justice, of crime, of urban social and economic machinery, Price has made a career of documenting these things and bringing out deeply human stories from between the cogs.

2) Action/dialogue. The cast here is uniformly strong and a pleasure to watch them say and do the things they do and say. We have Price to thank for that. Dude knows how to punch up an unexpected emotional response to the least likely gestures and routines.

Law & Order ain't got time to give us subplots like the kid's parents having to sell silverware to pay the lawyer, or his father's business partners having to make tough calls regarding their shared venture's future, or hell, about John Tuturro's extreme allergies and herbal explorations. Crisco and cellophane, dude. Crisco and cellophane.

Don't go into this one looking to be thrilled by legal fierworks and courtroom revelations - honestly, the mystery isn't particularly sexy or intriguing. Like the jury you're most likely going to form an opinion of the kid's guilt or innocence after an hour or so and nothing you see or hear after that is going to change your mind.

That's by design. But that's not even the point. The point, and it's a good and worthwhile one, is that this is life on the job - as a cop, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a cabbie, a convict, a streetwalker - at our moment in space/time and this here is a slice of that life for your tasting pleasure (or displeasure) and if you don't relate to somebody somewhere here your empathy gauge is broke.

Also, kudos for making this shit about middle-aged fucking people. Not a story particularly about the young accused and victim at the center, this is about the ground and still grinding folks who've been swimming these channels for decades - and yeah it is objectively about the young and what youth means to each of these folks (very much so), but it's not really their story - and for that I applaud the adults in the room.

Leave the sexy crime to the sexy young folks who've got time for it. This is about the balding, the paunchy, the itchy, the erectile-dyfunctional, the wrinkling and gravity-challenged professionals who've realized less than they'd hoped, but keep it up in the face of all indignity, because fuck it they're still here and there's work to do.


Jellon Lamb said...

The Last Panthers is criminally under watched. Now I was already completely fascinated with the real life Pink Panthers but the series was incredibly well done, all around.

Just finished The Night Of. Held off on it because I had seen and dug Criminal Justice, the BBC series in which The Night Of was, basically, a remake of. Same story with the cab, guy, girl and murder. The Night Of does venture into its own territory, after that and I'm glad I watched it.

Been digging some foreign crime TV, lately:

Cenk Batu (Germany)
Eyewitness/Øyevitne (Norway)
The Missing (France/UK...first season streaming on Amazon Prime, second currently airing in UK.)
Cordon (Belgium)
Public Enemy (Belgium)
Romanzo Criminale ( is good too.)

jedidiah ayres said...

Thanks for the heads up