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Television | FX series shows bad guys have families, financial woes, and personal problems, too

Issue: "Faculty follies," April 29, 2006

He's in the middle of a busy day at work when his cell phone rings. It's his wife. "This is not a good time," he says. But she's calling from the school. Their teenage daughter got in trouble. He talks to the teacher as he multi-tasks at his job. Only in this case, he is rummaging through a bank vault he has just broken into. As the members of his gang yell in profane celebration for getting the cash, the concerned father explains, "I'm in a meeting" and lectures the girl to improve her attitude.

It's a good scene from Thief (Mondays, 10:00 p.m. ET, FX), a series dedicated to the proposition that bad guys too have families, financial woes, and personal problems. Whereas The Sopranos on HBO shows this with an affluent Mafia family and plays it with ironic humor, Thief is a serious take on a working stiff who happens to steal for a living.

Such a premise could lead to an exploration of sin in the midst of ordinary life. But instead Thief goes on to glamorize stealing, as the protagonist Nick Atwater (Andre Braugher) carries out thrilling high-tech heists.

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The problem with this kind of show is that it forces viewers to assume the point of view of the bad guy. We sympathize with him, identify with him, and root for him to succeed. In the way we respond to him, the bad guy becomes a good guy, a moral inversion that can potentially poison our imaginations.

Thief is rated TV-MA for very bad language. Basic cable networks such as FX do not fall under FCC decency guidelines, since they do not broadcast over the public airwaves. Thief is one of the original programs from these networks, whose goal is to offer high-quality but taboo-skirting dramas, just like HBO.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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