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Plenty of shows out there start out in the “intriguing” category. You watch the first episode and your interest is piqued. As a sophisticated TV watcher, though, you see some signs that would indicate a show that might become convoluted and messy, but the first episode is interesting enough to keep you watching. That’s what we saw with a new British heist series.

CULPRITS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

Opening Shot: A vineyard in Lombardy, Italy. The timeframe is “Now.” A man is being chased through his villa by a man in a mask. The masked man shoots the other man a couple of times, and finally shoots him in the head as he lies in his driveway, next to one of his sports cars, begging for his life.

The Gist: In Washington State, Joe Petrus (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) seems to be living a good life as he drives his two stepkids to school in his Subaru. He has bought an old hardware store and intends to open a bistro, but seems to face institutional racism in town, from the cop who wonders what he’s doing at the old store to the planning board who thinks that the liquor license he’s applying for will sully the town’s atmosphere. His fiancé Jules (Kevin Vidal) is completely supportive, and the two of them seem to have a pretty good relationship.

But when Joe sees news of a patch of forest being cleared for development, he panics. He goes to the site in the middle of the night. That’s when we see a flashback to “Before”, which is about three years ago. Joe is the muscle for a London crime boss, and he shows his skills when he helps his boss escape during a meeting where other crime bosses look to eliminate him.

Back to “Now”: Joe drives to the site and finds a massive duffel bag he hid there; it’s full of cash. As he nervously drives to find a new hiding spot for it, a car plows through the intersection he’s in, hits him and another driver, and speeds off. Joe wants to report the accident, but he needs to hide the duffel first. He puts it in a Dumpster, and reluctantly goes to the police station to make his statement. He’s driven home, and by the time he gets back to the hiding spot, the Dumpster is empty. Getting that duffel back is his highest priority, but it damn near kills him to do it.

Back to “Before”: Joe, who by day is a personal trainer named David Marking, is approached by a master thief named Dianne Harewood (Gemma Arterton). Word got back to her about how Joe protected his boss; she wants him for a huge job, one that will leave him and the rest of the team she’s putting together set for life financially. Two conditions: He has to leave his current life behind and he can’t utter a word about it or her to anyone.

Culprits
Photo: Des Willie/Disney

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Despite the back and forth timelines, Culprits looks like a pretty classic heist drama along the lines of Money Heist. The storytelling reminds us of the series Kaleidoscope.

Our Take: The parallel timelines are what sets Culprits, created by J Blakeson and based on the book Culprits: The Heist Was Just the Beginning, apart from other heist shows. We see the heist play out in the past, with Harewood as “Brain”, Joe/David as “Muscle”, a con artist named “Officer” (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), an assassin named Psycho (Niamh Algar), a safecracker named Cracker (Kamel El Basha), Brain’s assistant Fixer (Karl Collins), a stunt driver named Driver (Vincent Riotta) and a former military officer named Right Hand (Tom Mothersdale). At the same time, all of the members of this team are being picked off by a masked assassin, and Joe is going to scramble to keep his secrets under wraps.

If it feels a little complicated and overly elaborate, it is. It’s enough to have to keep track of two timelines, much less all of the handles Brain has assigned to the team and the rules she has in place. But we liked seeing Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Joe/David/Muscle scramble around and try to figure out what to do with the massive bag of money he had hidden, and as things in his current, idyllic life spiral out of control, it’ll be fun to see how he reacts. Besides, he seems to pretty effortlessly glide from being British to being American with the aplomb that a trained chameleon should be able to do.

There is some dark humor to the series that helps keep the show from plodding along, but we’re not sure how well that will be sustained over the entire season. We just hope that Blakeson is able to balance the two timelines well enough to make the story cohesive and not a confusing mess.

Sex and Skin: None in the first episode.

Parting Shot: After Dianne/Brain lectures the team about the rules of the job, she goes, “Now let’s talk about the plan.”

Sleeper Star: Arterton is just creepy enough as Dianne/Brain to make her rules-laden planning of this big heist almost believable.

Most Pilot-y Line: As David is being questioned by two cops, he tells them “I just say encouraging things to white women as they do crunches.”

Our Call: STREAM IT. We’re not saying that Culprits won’t become a convoluted mess at some point, but the show’s plotting in its first episode is tight enough to make it intriguing.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.

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