I started hustlin’, they couldn’t tell me nothin’.
Frontin’ in the hood, tryin’ to be somebody.
My soul was on empty.
I was searchin’ for something.
— Anthony Hamilton, “Comin’ Where I’m From”

We soldiers. We can’t have no weak links.
— Elmo (Malik Yoba), “Pilot”

We have never separated ourselves from our dead. We walk with them and they walk with us.
— Father Bill (Brent Briscoe), “I Ain’t Goin’ to Jail for Anyone”

You’re still catching your breath after Lem’s devastating exit last week on The Shield. And now comes a whole other kind of hurt. Or rather, a whole other series of daily difficult choices for Nick Atwater (André Braugher), a career criminal whose life swings way out of control during the pilot episode of Thief, FX’s slot-replacement for Lem’s show.

Nick is no ordinary tv crook, though he is surely telegenic and does head up a crew whose members resemble a tv-style diversity. But he’s deep into trouble when you meet him quite literally: the camera brings you down, from the fireworky excitement of a Chinese dragon parade, into a San Francisco bank vault, blown open to coincide with the explosions outside. The colors are saturated, the crewmembers show an easy familiarity and skilled rhythm in their work: all seems right with their tv-crookness. The wide-angle lens shoots Nick close and the starts to circle, as if to register the perfection of this moment, as he peers into the safe. And then his cell phone vibrates. Loudly. “Dammit,” he spits before he answers. “This is not a good time,” he tells his wife Wanda (Dina Meyer).

She agrees, but for her own reasons. She’s calling from the police station, where her adolescent daughter Tammi (Mae Whitman), has been picked up for standing watch while her friends broke into the school. Wanda wants to put the officer on the phone with Nick, who protests that he’s “in a meeting” (she thinks he sells cars), but relents, convincing the cop that Tammi’s a “good kid” who only needs some step-parental oversight. In the background, his buddies are celebrating an unexpected score: “Benjamins, baby!” whoops Gabo (Yancey Arias). Nick turns his phone receiver on and off, trying to sound like he’s in a meeting. Shhhh.

Even on a good day, Nick’s keeping a few too many balls in the air. His illicit activities pay for a decent house in post-Katrina New Orleans, but he’s up against it at the end of each month, and even if Wanda goes along with his car-dealing story, she’s quite aware that Tammi’s unhappy (though, when Nick suggests the girl is emulating her absent father’s racism, Wanda insists she’s mad at him for being any man, not a black one). On top of Tammi’s minor legal infraction, Nick must also contend with the fact that a pile of money they discover unexpectedly in the bank and decide to take (against his instinct and apart from his plan) is “Chinese mob money,” which means there will be heck to pay.

Just so, avenger Vincent Chen (Will Yun Lee) appears almost immediately, snarly and fond of shadows, and especially fierce concerning the family honor, determined not only to retrieve the cash, but also to kill anyone even remotely involved in its taking, at the behest of the patriarch known as Uncle Lau (Randall Duk Kim). It’s something of a complication that this stereotypically flashy assassin is joined, a couple of episodes later (in “Everything that Rises Must Converge”) by Billy Kwan, also known as Shrimp Boy (Parry Shen). He glances up from his videogame to identify himself as Uncle’s “real nephew, not some paper son.” As Billy’s laidbackness (“So dude, who we gonna kill?”) irritates Vincent, it also displays the series’ interest in alternative universes, nearly tv-generic but not quite.

That’s not to say Vincent’s ferocity doesn’t get play: even after Nick’s fence, Roz (Linda Hamilton), convinces him to return the money, Vincent keeps coming, implacably and intently bad (he leaves one room full of bodies with the riposte, “Let ’em think the niggers did it.”) As the primary opponent in this (so far) six-episode series, Vincent clears space for Nick’s unorthodox morality. (The same might be said for another plot on collision course with Nick’s, involving the about-to-retire Det. John Hayes [Michael Rooker], now regretting his corruption while needing to appease a banally demanding wife as well as his former associates.)

As the not-Vincent, Nick can justify robbing banks, insurance companies, or DHL: “Done right, money all around, nobody gets hurt, it’s win-win.” His ethical frame is only slightly shaken by Tammi’s acting out. Charismatic and cagey (and André Braugher, after all), Nick brings to his work a concern for efficiency and a genius for compartmentalization. Thieving is a job, not an identity.

Unlike, say, crew member Jack (Clifton Collins Jr.), sweating his religious faith and owing money to loan sharks, Nick keeps his life’s fragments separated. He plainly adores Wanda, respects Roz, and rejects personal scrapping (this in the midst of the elaborate soap opera his own life quickly becomes). When his guys begin arguing about what goes wrong in the bank job (because you know something must), he snaps, “You two bitches wanna hoover the bones, you wanna beat the shit out of each other, you do it later. Right now, we stay on schedule.”

The schedule, however, is shaped and reshaped by personalities, and so Thief is as much about jealousy and greed as it is about loyalty and focus. Though Nick plainly has history with Gabo and compassion for Gulf war veteran Elmo (Malik Yoba, and it is good to see him again), who’s becoming a fifth-time father during the bank job, he tries to be practical above all. At least until things go exceedingly wrong.

Suddenly, Nick’s immersed in overwhelming loss, emotional chaos, and the diurnal travails of dealing with a resentful teenaged daughter — all set against the painfully appropriate backdrop of Katrina (mentioned and imaged a couple of times). His relationship with Tammi is strained repeatedly, not least because she witnesses his commission of a serious crime, which she proceeds to hold over him as she works through some more typical “issues” (the snotty boyfriend, the negligent dad in Hawaii, the growing realization that adults are imperfect and sometimes even malevolent by definition).

For all its seeming focus on Nick’s job, Thief is more interested in the parallels and intersections of Tammi and Nick’s journeys. “When it comes to kids,” he observes of his parenting skills and experience, “I’m into negative numbers.” And yet here he is, fathering a willful, traumatized child (in this universe, everyone’s traumatized, though some more than others). Seeking out his own McCoy Tyner-loving father figure (the excellent Albert Hall), Nick faces down his troubled self-understanding. “A man tries to protect what he loves,” he says, “He builds walls. He keeps the world out, so the people he loves stay safe, especially when the world he grew up in was never safe.”

As Wanda and Tammi both challenge, in very different ways, his inclination to “protect,” Nick worries. A black man with a white stepdaughter, he’s surrounded by risks every day. A brief moment near the end of the third episode, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” makes clear the ironies and tensions he faces. Waiting outside a nice house in a white neighborhood where Tammi’s attending a friend’s birthday party, he’s approached by a uniformed cop, wondering what he’s doing there. For a second, Nick’s explanation — he’s waiting for his daughter — eases the tension, and the uni backs off, rationalizing what appears to be a standard DWB (Driving While Black) stop. “We’ve had a rash of home invasion robberies since the storm,” explains the cop, handing back Nick’s license.

But then, Tammi appears, walking across the wide lawn in her party dress. “This your father?” asks the cop, eyebrows raised. Tammi looks scared and, in half a beat, slides into contempt. “Unfortunately. What he do now?” Looking mean now, the cop moves off into the darkness, the party music booming in the background. “Mistaken identity,” he says. Tammi agrees, “No shit.” As Thief begins, taut and often smart, most everyone’s identity seems “mistaken.”