You know how the saying goes: You wait years for a gripping British counterterrorism drama and then two come along at once. First the BBC’s Bodyguard arrived on Netflix in October, all clenched teeth and joylessness and impossibly frequent explosions, riveting viewers and somehow scoring a Golden Globe for its star, Richard Madden. Arriving amid more muted fanfare on Amazon last week was Informer, which is a shame because it’s easily the better of the two. If Bodyguard sweeps in broad, cartoonish strokes, Informer agonizes over the details of life in modern London. It parses the dynamics of council estates, code-switching, crime gangs, and police officers sinking deeper into an ethical morass in their efforts to keep people feeling “safe.”
Which people, though? Over its six episodes, Informer returns again and again to the idea of safety, as it documents the exploitative and fascinating (for our purposes) relationship between Gabe (Paddy Considine), a cop on the counterterrorism squad, and Raza (Nabhaan Rizwan), a young Londoner who’s coerced into informant work for Gabe. Right from the start, the relationship is a dysfunctional one. Gabe is desperate to uncover information about an imminent plot from a terrorist cell that’s already struck in Rotterdam and Turin. (Every episode begins with a flash-forward dissecting a horrific attack in London, which amps up the tension.) Raza, meanwhile, objects to the fact that Gabe is stereotyping him just like everyone else Raza meets, protesting, “I don’t know any terrorists, bruv.”
Informer is written by Rory Haines, a Brit, and Sohrab Noshirvani, an Iranian American. They met in Columbia University’s M.F.A. program and purportedly spent significant time talking to police officers, British Muslims, counterterrorism specialists, and migrants while researching their story. That depth of background shines through in the scenes set in East London, which crackle with a kind of topical energy. From the charismatic efficiency of the Albanian gangs dominating the drug trade to the “lost boys” preyed on by extremist recruiters, Haines and Noshirvani capture a world that’s dynamic, significant, and almost entirely unseen on modern television. (Bodyguard focused almost completely on the politics of counterterrorism, while another BBC drama, McMafia, bewilderingly chose to examine global crime syndicates from the perspective of a besuited Harvard alum.)
Where Informer falters, which it markedly does, is with characters whom the writers seem to have assumed they could sketch in easily. Mostly, these are women. Gabe’s partner, Holly (The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Bel Powley), is a perplexing cold stare of a character with minimal backstory who chews on her pout and gazes blankly into space. The series makes clear that Gabe’s wife, Emily (Call the Midwife’s Jessica Raine), has very real reasons to object to her husband’s shadowy professional life, and yet Informer primarily has her sniping and sneering at him arbitrarily. The scenes in which Holly and Emily interact have a stiff, almost surreal theatricality compared with the ebullient back-and-forths between Raza and his family.
Considine’s Gabe, by contrast, gets a history that’s fleshed out in exhaustive detail. The series never explains how Raine’s Holly speaks fluent Arabic and has a thorough knowledge of the Koran, but Gabe’s neo-Nazi tattoos, glimpsed briefly in one scene, are virtually given their own topographical chart, as Gabe’s past as an undercover officer investigating violent white-nationalist movements in northern England is explored. It’s an intriguing subplot that’s always 10 percent too much. The sight of Gabe shaking and pale after testifying at a parole hearing is more than enough to communicate his mental turmoil; that he subsequently punches a mirror feels like over-egging the cake a bit. Considine, currently starring in The Ferryman on Broadway, is one of the most interesting and underrated actors working in Britain, but the challenge of playing a man who is himself perpetually acting seems to mute his energy.
What makes Informer is Raza. The series marks Rizwan’s screen-acting debut, which is hard to believe since he brings such varying levels to his part. Like Gabe, Raza is accustomed to shifting modes—the first episode shows him fluently switching from charming artist to quietly pious big brother to small-time rogue before it hints at how he got so deft at modulating himself. As Raza prepares to leave for a night out, his father (Paul Tylak) warns him to be careful in the wake of Islamophobic attacks after Rotterdam. “Tell ’em you’re a Hindu,” his dad says. “Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh,” Raza replies, grinning. His portrayal of a Muslim character on television feels almost unprecedented in its depth and intimacy, and it’s a valuable counterbalance to those on shows (Bodyguard, Homeland) that struggle to conceive of Muslims who aren’t terrorists.
As the show moves forward, Raza is increasingly asked to put his safety on the line in the name of preserving it for others. Gabe, who grew accustomed to risky situations in his old job, acts more and more recklessly, endangering himself as if to compensate for what he’s asking Raza to do. Informer has its finest moments when it considers the reverberations and repercussions that each person’s behavior has on others (despite the fact that everything comes together in far too clunky a form in the final episode). In one sequence the series tracks the path of a gun from its origins all the way through to its confiscation, noting the coincidences and events that led to its use in an appalling crime. It’s a microcosm of what Informer is trying to do more broadly—to explore not just the explosive set pieces and catastrophic tragedies, but also the particular details and collisions that paved the way for them to happen.