Sometimes it seems that the only Muslim characters in contemporary drama are either Islamic extremists (no!) or nonthreatening friends of the West (thank heaven!) — think 24 and Sleeper Cell. The least a program can do when it traffics in these same old stereotypes is to make an uncomfortable three-dimensional journey for the complacent viewer. And Britz, a two-part BBC America series, does a commendable job of turning an inquisitive yet understanding eye on British Muslims trying to carve a life out of a society that views their every action with suspicion.
The story revolves around a U.K.-born brother and sister of Pakistani heritage, whose views about our post-9/11 world lead them far apart. Certainly, it must have been an enticing prospect for writer-director Peter Kosminsky to construct a scenario that might actually lead a terrorism-wary English audience rattled by the London subway bombings of July 7, 2005, to empathize with beautiful, impassioned Nasima (Manjinder Virk), a young medical student and Muslim activist whose harrowing experiences fighting the injustice of repressive government policies veer her aggrieved soul toward dangerous radicalism. But I’m thinking it must have intrigued Kosminsky even more to upend perceptions with the character of Nasima’s brother, Sohail (Riz Ahmed). A law student who is no stranger to anti-Muslim sentiment, Sohail comes off initially as a secular modernist’s dream: smart, proudly assimilated, openly disdainful of fundamentalism, soberly realistic about threats to Britain’s security but fashionably cynical about American motives behind the Iraq war. Yet, when he joins MI5 and starts to spy on the distressed suburban Muslim community in which he grew up — even though the job is part of rooting out a terrorist cell tied to the 7/7 bombings — you can’t help but feel a flip-side disturbance at where his version of idealism has taken him.
Nasima’s and Sohail’s stories — which converge in painful and, finally, shocking ways — are told separately over the two nights, and Sohail’s is actually first. It’s also the better installment, in part due to the icy-cool skill with which Kosminsky sets in motion his plot’s thriller elements but mostly because the story of a bright, enterprising Muslim with a sense of indebtedness to a country openly at war with his people is a more psychologically fascinating construct than the more rudimentary trajectory of Nasima’s tragic pull to the dark side. (Britz also has an unfortunately moralistic ending that, if it can be said, acts as an unearned downer on top of a well-earned downer.)
Coming in for healthy debate in both parts of Britz is the U.K.’s controversial use of control orders, an element of the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act, which places severe restrictions on the movement and behavior of citizens deemed to be potential terrorist threats. Generally viewed as a government tool aimed at containing Muslims, it’s not used as widely as Britz might have you believe, but Kosminsky effectively uses the application of this so-called “preventive” measure to show how well-meaning laws enacted to alleviate the fears of one segment of society only serve to inflame and/or demoralize another.
Ultimately, there is unflinching compassion in Britz for those who struggle to process disenfranchisement. Sohail and Nasima are characters you never stop feeling for, even as they join groups whose agendas nurture their worst impulses and imperil their innate good-heartedness. The sadness in this plenty sad story is that in seeking to belong, they wind up more alone than ever.
BRITZ | BBC America | Part 1, Sunday, 8 p.m.; Part 2, Monday, 8 p.m.
The Joy of Crooking
The lighter side of payback is over on TNT, with Leverage, a breezily passable one-hour crime drama about a rogue team of wealth-redistribution specialists — okay, thieves — which updates the Robin Hood and His Merry Men model with hacker jujitsu, dummy corporations, high-tech communications technology and the occasional explosion. Tights are still worn, but these days only when rappelling the sides of skyscrapers instead of drawbridges.
Of course, Leverage itself is a big steal, too, taking its Joy of Crooking ethos from Britain’s popular grifter series Hustle, about a tightly knit group of con artists who rip off others for fun, profit and punishment of the greedy. Hustle was a dapper blend of personality and chic subterfuge, whose smoothness can largely be attributed to one well-aged ingredient: Robert Vaughn. Leverage isn’t quite as effortlessly intoxicating — it must make do with the dependable but suave-challenged Timothy Hutton — but when it works, the TNT series has a rascally tingle. Both shows engagingly offer up a fantasy world in which a stealth band of heroes proudly versed in the criminal arts takes down mighty figures who prey on the weak. And in these economically depressed times of stark income inequality and corporate malfeasance — when, let’s face it, you really can cheat an honest man (and woman) — that’s a damn potent fantasy, indeed.
The point man for the bad-but-good gang on Leverage is Hutton’s Nate Ford, an ex-insurance investigator burned by his former employer, when they refused his dying son’s medical claims were refused. (In these things, it’s always personal for someone.) In the pilot, Ford is recruited by another burned individual, an aerospace company head (Saul Rubinek), to steal back some pilfered designs, the wiggling worm on the hook being the targeted rival’s insurance company, the bastards who let his son die! And so Nate’s team is assembled: the tech guy (Aldis Hodge), who can infiltrate any computer; the sexy, lithe burglar (Beth Riesgraf), who can break into any space; the mercenary (Christian Kane), who can take down a roomful of goons single-handedly; and a mark-seducing actress (Gina Bellman), who can charm any powerful man.
Which leads to something of a minor sticking point: Where’s the challenge for these invasion geniuses? As introduced, they’re almost too good — too armed with every penetrative gadget, informative nugget and mental weapon at their disposal — like those Schwarzenegger action flicks in which his physical invincibility hardly seems a match for any self-respecting villain. That said, the details of the double crosses are indisputably fun to watch unfold, and as a longtime fan of the genre, I’ll admit the pilot concluded with a twist I didn’t see coming. But an even nicer surprise for a series like this would be an ill-timed but well-chosen element of vulnerability for these pros of con.
LEVERAGE | TNT | Pilot airs Sunday, Dec. 7, 10 p.m., then regular time slot is Tuesdays, 10 p.m., beginning Dec. 9.