In “The Last Panthers,” the thieves come through
the front door. Their white jumpsuits as immaculate as the jewelry store’s
gleaming showroom, the trio of criminals executes the heist almost wordlessly,
passing a pre-written note under the manager’s nose to demand the code to the
safe — and then, when she resists, pouring a bucket of Pepto Bismol-tinted
paint on her head. It’s the sole pop of color in the bravura opening sequence
of SundanceTV’s limited series, eight fleetly constructed minutes of dead drops
and costume changes unspooling in the gray streets of Marseille, the sort of
strange image that marks “The Last Panthers” as an unorthodox piece
As created and co-written (with Jean-Alain Laban and Jérôme
Pierrat) by Jack Thorne and directed by Johan Renck, the series conjures up a
portrait of Europe’s current political moment by reference to the past,
disguising a potent tale of history’s long reach as a continent-spanning thriller. Politically astute and exceedingly complex (verging, in stretches, on
the impenetrable), “The Last Panthers” traces the dense web of
underworld connections and back-channel communications exposed by the aforementioned theft,
gathering together the Serbian burglars, a British insurance claims specialist (Samantha
Morton), and a French policeman (Tahar Rahim) in an illicit trade that reaches
from Antwerp to Belgrade, London to Genoa.
Though pegged to striking sights — a
man swallowing a plastic packet of diamonds like bait on the end of a fishing
line; an entire frame consumed by the imposing, brutal façade
of a public housing estate known as Les Agnettes — the series is dense and
often demanding. To watch it is to yearn for an accompanying primer on European
history since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And yet, this descriptive thickness, matched by washed-out
flashbacks to the Balkan Wars, is what distinguishes “The Last
Panthers” from its glossier competitor, AMC’s “The Night
Manager.” The latter, starring Tom Hiddleston as a deep cover operative
embedded with a nefarious arms dealer (Hugh Laurie), is as natty as its
protagonist’s custom-made suits, buoyed by the terrifically nasty Tom Hollander
and the very pregnant, scene-stealing Olivia Colman as the ethical backbone of the British intelligence services, the foul-mouthed Marge Gunderson of MI6.
The problem is
that “The Night Manager” also smoothes over the antecedents of its
aggressively “timely” subject matter — the Arab Spring, the Syrian
civil war, and the resulting refugee crisis — as though these were simply
another expression of the exotic, on the order of veiled women and teeming
souks. Approaching the present state of affairs from an oblique angle, or at
least an unexpected one, “The Last Panthers” skirts these echoes of
Orientalism: It’s no dispatch from an imagined, “backwards”
“East,” but a depiction of the destruction wrought in the name
of the West’s “civilizing” influence.
Whether indicated by an allusion to Greece’s economic crisis
or by umbrellas printed with the distinctive blue-and-gold pattern of the
European Union, “The Last Panthers” embraces rigor — even, periodically,
at the expense of narrative momentum — and it’s more than likely that Emmy voters
will respond to the high sheen of “The Night Manager” instead. But
the former’s more intricate composition is not the only hurdle in its path to a
nomination: At a moment of unprecedented interest in limited series, the TV
Academy’s five slots no longer seem adequate to the format’s rapid
proliferation. Unfortunately, many quality series on smaller networks, with uncommon
sensibilities, stand to be left out in the cold.
As recently as 2009 and 2010, the Emmys mustered only two
nominees for Outstanding Miniseries, prompting the creation, in 2011, of a
combined category for miniseries and TV movies. Since re-establishing the
separation in 2014, though, the limited series has become a major focus of the
“peak TV” boom, and this year’s field promises to be among the
strongest since the category was inaugurated in the 1970s. In addition to past
nominees “Fargo” (FX) and “American Horror Story” (FX), shaping up to be formidable contenders are “The Night Manager,” “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J.
Simpson” (FX), “American Crime” (ABC), and “Show Me a
Hero” (HBO) — boxing out more
idiosyncratic, challenging, or even comedic options.
Have you checked out such worthy fare as “The Last
Panthers,” “Rebellion” (SundanceTV), “Jonathan Strange
& Mr. Norrell” (BBC America), “London Spy” (BBC America), or “Time Traveling Bong” (Comedy Central)? Though hasty rule changes
are rarely a good idea, it’s clear that current levels of production are more
than capable of providing seven nominees for Outstanding Limited Series,
similar to the recently expanded Drama and Comedy Series categories.
It would be a shame if a series as shrewd as “The Last
Panthers” were to be neglected as result of this disconnect between TV’s
supply and the Emmys’ demand, for it’s a more incisive examination of Europe’s
relationship to the world beyond its borders than AMC’s adaptation of John le
Carré — attuned, down to the tiniest details, to the collaboration between the expansion of Europe’s Common Market and the tenacity of its black one. With the
Balkan conflict as its inflection point, “The Last Panthers” offers a
forceful reminder that the tumult in today’s Europe did not only emerge, tabula rasa, from Tahrir Square or the
war in Iraq, but also from the continent’s own intransigent history of factional and
ideological divides, each one seeming to segue into the next:
between Westerners and Easterners, capitalists and communists, Serbs and Croats, Europeans and “outsiders.”
As Renck manufactures a montage of a Serbian airport’s scale
miniature, for instance, its design reminiscent of Finnish architect Eero
Saarinen’s sleek, modern curves, the model’s shades of gray reflect the
colorlessness of the series’ flashbacks. “A new future is coming to
Belgrade,” the project’s main booster promises investors, but in
the grim, compelling logic of “The Last Panthers,” this future bears
an uncomfortable resemblance to the past.
“The Last Panthers” airs Wednesdays at
10pm on SundanceTV.
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