In the (Pale) Pink: The Last Panthers

They really existed, you know. The Pink Panthers.

The Panthers were a confederation of Balkan thieves, many with military experience in the Bosnian and Kosovar wars of the 90s, who in 2000 started pulling off hundreds of audacious heists around the world. The Daily Mail gave them the name after they hit Graff Diamonds for £23 million in what was then the biggest jewel heist in British history. The thieves would disappear into the shadows in Serbia or Montenegro and live quietly with the complicity of corrupt or suborned local officials. Then in the late 2000s, INTERPOL formed the Pink Panther Working Group, the police agencies of Europe started sharing information, and the lure of EU membership inspired various Balkan states to crack down on their wayward sons and daughters. The old guard is mostly gone, now, replaced by a new generation that isn’t so careful, or skilled, or slick.

The Last Panthers, a British/French co-production, is about this changing of the guard, the ghosts of the past, and the bonds of family.

This six-episode Sundance series starts with a diamond heist in Marseilles that goes badly awry. The narrative follows three main characters in three parallel stories.

  • Naomi Franckom (Samantha Morton, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), an investigator for the insurance company now on the hook for €15 million in missing diamonds, finds herself facing old demons when she returns to Serbia to hunt the robbers. She was a British UN peacekeeper during the Balkan wars and suffers from flashbacks featuring an as-yet unexplained Bad Thing that happened in that whirlpool of Bad Things.
  • Milan Celik (Goran Bogdan, active in Croatian films) is one of the thieves, apparently the only one who’d been a member of the original Pink Panthers. When everything turns to caca, he goes to ground in Belgrade and tries to reconnect with his old gang. His return isn’t universally celebrated by his ex-comrades. Milan apparently knows Naomi, although we don’t yet know how.
  • Khalil Rachedi (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet), a Marseilles cop, is digging through the darker parts of the city trying to find the thief who carelessly killed a six-year-old girl in the getaway. His relationship with his wife and brother are strained at best, for reasons still hidden at this early stage.

The AT&T Uverse logline for this series mentions “grim characters of extremely questionable integrity,” which is an understatement. Everybody’s bending the rules in one way or another. Milan is a killer as well as a thief (not the real Pink Panthers’ thing, but whatever) who’s willing to jettison his partners-in-crime when they become inconvenient. There is, indeed, no honor among these thieves. Khalil’s boss calls him a “cowboy” and chafes at the younger man’s swagger and impatience; we’ll see where that gets Khalil in the future. Naomi isn’t the cuddly, sexy Rene Russo type of insurance investigator, but rather the kind who actively impedes Khalil’s investigation and erases the security tapes of the robbery after she’s done with them (but before the police can see them).

Despite the thriller-ish trappings, this isn’t the kind of show you can have on in the background while you work crossword puzzles (as I often do). For one thing, the French characters speak French and the Serbian characters speak Serbian. You can’t be allergic to reading your TV if you’re going to engage with this series. The dialog in whatever language tends toward the elliptical; the writers aren’t interested in spelling things out for you. It’s not always obvious that the many flashbacks are actually flashbacks unless you’re really paying attention. Much of the action revolves around shady people conspiring in back alleys and ratty apartments, not speaking openly or honestly with each other. While the “coming next week” scenes promise more action, I doubt this will become the Euro answer to 24.

The production values are high and the action scenes are staged effectively and realistically. Scenes set in Marseille and Belgrade are actually shot there. Except for John Hurt (who makes a brief appearance in the first episode), it’s unlikely you’ll have seen much of any of these actors before, which adds to the general verité feeling.

Warp Films, one of the production companies, is also responsible for ’71, a gritty, taut thriller set in a Northern Ireland as corrupt and morally degraded as any place in this show. The Last Panthers shares that film’s desaturated palette, which renders everything with the most minimal wash of color and leaves every shot leached of hope or life. Even the theme song – Bowie’s “Blackstar” – signals that very little happiness will come to any of the people on the screen. It’s noir, after all, and happy isn’t part of this world.

The Last Panthers airs Wednesdays on the Sundance Channel through May 18.

Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. The ethically challenged characters in his international thriller Doha 12 and his near-future thriller South are rendered in full color. His Facebook author page features spies, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.