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Braugher glowers, and 'Thief' rings hollow

I'm supposed to go gaga over ''Thief," which arrives with the kind of pedigree that helps TV critics maintain their professional self-esteem. First of all, it's an original drama from FX, the prestige basic-cable home of three TV highs, ''The Shield," ''Rescue Me," and ''Nip/Tuck." Even more than pay channels such as Showtime, FX has forged a distinctive, daring identity, and its shows are year-end Top 10 regulars.

And ''Thief," which premieres tonight at 10, stars Andre Braugher, the implosive/explosive actor who helped fuel the crime-time powerhouse ''Homicide: Life on the Street." With his ''Homicide" cred, along with a pair of fierce eyes on his gravely still face, Braugher has become one of those performers who verge on being over-celebrated for being under-acknowledged. We have to praise him like we should.

But ''Thief" left me cold. It walks the walk of Important Series Television, but no matter how hard it tries to be gutsy and existential, it rings hollow. The six-part series, in which Braugher plays heist artist Nick Atwater, takes itself much too seriously. Creator Norman Morrill desperately wants to paint a ''Sopranos"-esque portrait of a morally disfigured man who is sympathetic as he moves between his family and his family of crooks. The current thinking is that by posing a man's familial instinct and midlife agita against his criminal ruthlessness, you are automatically creating layered ''quality drama."

But after the breezy opening scenes, ''Thief" turns into a slog, a ponderous soap opera steeped in thick, humorless atmosphere. Everything about the show telegraphs weightiness, from Braugher's grim expressions to his gloomily lighted modern home in New Orleans; but the script never delivers. It's NBC's ''Heist" in a blue funk. The characters are depressed, and depressing, and they're swept up in so many big tragedies in the first two hours they seem caught in a waking nightmare.

The series starts with a robbery in San Francisco, after which Nick and his guys will return to New Orleans (filming moved to Shreveport after Hurricane Katrina). Mid-heist, after tunneling into a bank safe, Nick takes a cellphone call from his wife, Wanda (Dina Meyer). Turns out his stepdaughter, Tammi (Mae Whitman), has been brought to the police station for teen misbehavior. And so we get a nicely ironic bit where parent Nick is on the phone with a cop while robbing a bank. But from that moment on, ''Thief" glides into the murk.

The somber characters in Nick's professional life, including Elmo (Malik Yoba), Gabo (Yancey Arias), and Jack (Clifton Collins Jr.), aren't particularly distinctive. Their bickering is routine thug tension and guilt. Only Linda Hamilton, as the woman who fences the stolen money, leaves an impression. The show makes much more of Nick's stepdaughter, who may have witnessed Nick and the guys murdering someone. Like her mother, Tammi doesn't know about Nick's crime life; but she's starting to draw conclusions. Unfortunately, Whitman can be irritating as the chronically unhappy girl, not because she resembles a young Linda Blair but because her whiny attitude recalls Elisha Cuthbert as Jack Bauer's daughter on ''24."

In an effort to add moral complexity, ''Thief" includes subplots featuring different styles of evil. Nick and his crew are bad, we are reminded, but not as bad as they could be. The money they stole in San Francisco puts a Chinese mafia hit man on their trail, and we also get to know a crooked cop (overplayed by Michael Rooker). Also, at various points, the writers try to blur our judgment by giving Nick lines such as ''Good men can wind up doing things that are upsetting" as well as a brief lecture on how Enron executives prove ''there's no such thing as a straight life." But with all the heavy dialogue, busy plotting, and stylistic overkill, ''Thief" is still unsatisfying. Ultimately, it's trying to get something for nothing.

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