“Some things are too rotten to change.” The line is spoken by a throwaway character — he’s literally killed off not too long after he says it — but it’s a good summation of the new SundanceTV original The Last Panthers. The series, which premieres at 10 p.m. tonight, begins as a heist story. But it quickly becomes something much more dark and complex, a meditation on trust, power, and corruption that spans Europe from the United Kingdom to the Balkans.
Over six hour-long episodes, The Last Panthers follows three characters on three different yet related quests. With so many languages and locales in the mix — and a plot denser than concrete — the show can be hard to follow, and it isn’t until the penultimate episode that we finally understand how all the characters are connected. The Last Panthers fits nicely with SundanceTV’s slowly growing stable of original series, which includes Top of the Lake, Rectify, and the French production The Returned. Like those shows, this one is an ambitious, cinematic exploration of a very specific world that has its own set of moral codes and that hints at trauma below every surface.
The inciting incident is a diamond theft in Marseilles, “gateway to Africa, asshole of France,” according to Tom (John Hurt), a former M16 agent who now works in insurance. The crime has all the hallmarks of the notorious Pink Panthers, a long-dormant Eastern European gang of thieves. Tom brings on insurance adjuster Naomi (Samantha Morton) to help find the stolen diamonds.
The thieves accidentally killed a little girl while trying to escape, which triggers a police investigation led by Khalil (Tahar Rahim), a young officer who grew up in a Marseilles neighborhood plagued by gang crime. Khalil got out, but his brother stayed behind, and he has information Khalil needs. The final piece in the puzzle is Milan (Goran Bogdan), a former Panther who was involved in the jewelry heist and who is desperate for money to help his younger brother get a heart transplant.
Morton and Hurt are predictably great, but Rahim and Bogdan steal the show with compelling portraits of idealistic men trying to do the right thing in a world in which that’s no longer an option. Still, The Last Panthers left me a little cold. Part of that reaction is probably due to the show’s look, which suits its “shades of grey” theme: whether we’re in London, Belgrade, or Marseilles, the skies are perpetually overcast, as if the camera lens is covered by a film of dust, and the action takes place in run-down alleyways, muddy refugee camps, and derelict high-rise apartments.
Over six hours, I found myself begging for just one ray of sunlight to come through, something to indicate that all hope has not been lost. That ray of sunlight arrives in the form of episode five, which shifts the action to Belgrade in 1995, where Naomi is working as a negotiator with the UN. The backstory helps humanize a character whose motivations are murky up until then, and it’s refreshing to stay in one place after hopping from one European city to another, in the present and through flashbacks, for four episodes.
But The Last Panthers may lose viewers before they reach that fifth episode. Writer Jack Thorne and director Johan Renck do an admirable job tracking the flow of illegal guns, drugs, and jewels across Europe, demonstrating how power operates among shadowy gangsters and suit-wearing UN officials alike. But it’s hard to stay invested in that story when there’s so little to connect with here on the level of character. It helps to have actors who do such great work with facial expressions alone. Bogdan in particular, a Croatian actor, gives an utterly compelling and touching performance as a man whose goal in life is just to survive: It only takes a glance at his grim face to understand the years of struggle he’s endured.
Still, even the bleakest show needs something to balance it out; Breaking Bad was bleak as hell, but it was funny, too, and had enough moments of levity to balance its heavy subject matter. There was exactly one line I laughed at on The Last Panthers, in a scene in which a Serbian gang leader goes to the barber in preparation for a meeting with UN officials in London, pulls out a magazine with David Cameron on the cover, and says, “I want to look like this.” (Coming out of the barbershop, his colleague tells him, “You look like a total cunt.”)
Viewers may not be prepared for this deep plunge into such a dark world; it’s April, after all. But if you’re in a particularly gloomy, thoughtful mood, The Last Panthers will give you something meaty to chew on.