As the television reports a terrorist attack on the continent, Raza Shar, the British-born son of Pakistani immigrants, prepares to go out for a night on the town in London. “Anyone picks on you, don’t be brave,” his father admonishes him. “Tell him you’re a Hindu.” Raza rolls his eyes, nods and recites, “Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh.”
That scene, early in the BBC mini-series “Informer” (coming to Amazon Prime Video on Friday), indicates that you’re not watching a typical TV drama about the fight against terrorism. For one thing, Raza, who’s winningly played by Nabhaan Rizwan in his screen debut, is not just the center of the story but its sharpest, wittiest and most appealing character. The cops played by Paddy Considine and Bel Powley, the more established stars of the six-episode series, look dull and washed out by comparison.
That contrast runs through the show, in ways that are a welcome change from the genre’s frequent characteristics: piousness, fear mongering, lazy stereotyping. Raza’s family (his mother is played by the vibrant Sunetra Sarker from the high-school dramedy “Ackley Bridge”) and the immigrants’ world of dodgy housing projects and rundown commercial strips radiate warmth and healthy, informed skepticism. In this story, they’re the ones whose way of life is under threat.
“Informer” was created and written by Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, who reportedly met in a screenwriting class at Columbia University. They’ve sold several feature scripts (one was included on the Black List of hot unproduced screenplays), but this is their first project to make it to the screen in 10 years of working together.
And they got it about half right. As refreshing a character as Raza is, and as crackling as the scenes in his milieu can be, there’s another chunk of the story — the cop chunk — that appears to have been beyond Haines and Noshirvani. For every cliché and leaden bit of dialogue they kept out of the story of immigrant life, they tossed one into the story of undercover police work and its toll on those who are condemned to do it.
That makes “Informer” an up-and-down experience as the complicated, somewhat disjointed story barrels along. Considine, a fine actor in a dour role, plays Gabe Waters, a former undercover cop who now seeks out, trains and handles informants in the South Asian community. Powley plays his new partner, Holly Morten, who’s an equally overworked type, the female cop whose talent is matched by awkwardness and antisocial tendencies.
Under pressure to find a terrorist leader thought to be in London, Gabe and Holly stumble on Raza when he spends a night in a holding cell, and pressure him into becoming an informant. He’s appalled at the thought of snitching. But the twist is that his natural charm and quick wits make him good at it, and as he gets deeper into the job during the show’s middle episodes, he begins to take pride in it.
Just about everything having to do with Raza, as he insinuates himself with Albanian gangsters and disaffected Muslims, is fun to watch, particularly the scenes pairing Rizwan with Roger Jean Nsengiyumva as Dadir, another son of the projects who isn’t quite as polished as Raza. Not as good but still entertaining is the interplay between Rizwan and Considine, as Gabe instructs Raza in the undercover arts.
That leaves the time-consuming but not particularly significant subplots about Gabe’s past undercover work among neo-Nazis (shades of the F.B.I. agent Stan Beeman in “The Americans”) and the problems Gabe’s workload causes in his marriage (Jessica Raine plays his wife). Those are the times for checking email.
Despite its lighter than usual touch, “Informer” is not a happy story — flash-forwards to an inquest following a mass shooting give that away from the start. It’s an equal-opportunity dispenser of grief, with nearly everyone ending up a victim in one way or another.
But when Rizwan is on screen, it has a bounce, an engaging lightness. Gracefully avoiding the handshake of a female teacher, casting a skeptical eye on Londoners of every description, Raza is always good company.