“In real life, white criminals are arrested more than any other ethnic group for acts of terrorism in the UK.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Rory Haines 👨🏼🇬🇧 and Sohrab Noshirvani 👨🏽🇮🇷🇺🇸
Director: Jonny Campbell 👨🏼🇬🇧 (6 eps)
Writers: Rory Haines 👨🏼🇬🇧 (6 eps) and Sohrab Noshirvani 👨🏽🇮🇷🇺🇸 (6 eps)
Reviewed by Nathaniel 👨🏾🇺🇸🌈
When BBC drama Informer first aired last October and soon landed on Amazon Prime, the six-part series was quickly appreciated for its aesthetics and character-driven storytelling. Against the vibrant backdrop of London’s less famous but more lived-in neighborhoods like Peckham or East London, audiences follow the tumultuous relationship between a counterterrorism officer, Gabe Waters (Paddy Considine), and the reluctant British-Pakistani man he turns into an informant for Britain’s Counter Terrorism Support Unit (CTSU).
Beneath its straightforward premise, Informer concerns itself with complicated issues like identity, or the gray area between choice and coercion. Gripping drama unfolds via dazzling newcomer Nabhaan Rizwan, as he embodies these issues through the lead role of Raza Shar.
Informer starts each episode with scenes from an alleged act of terrorism and it’s enjoyable to stitch the story together, piece by piece until the surprising finale. But take heed: A healthy tolerance for thick British accents and localized street slang is required!
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, but barely
Women exist, but neither of the main recurring protagonists are written with any complexity or respect. Emily Waters (Jessica Raine), the wife of CTSU agent Gabe Waters, spends the series aggravated by everything she doesn’t know about her spouse. And Gabe’s newly assigned partner, the brusque Holly Marten (Bel Powley), barely receives any exposition. She mostly passes the time being barked at by Gabe and her story arc feels particularly tone-deaf, demonstrating the writers’ lack of consideration for her beyond how far along she can move the plot.
Episodes mostly fail the Bechdel test, and if they do pass, the conversations are largely meaningless and/or extremely brief. Emily and Holly share multiple scenes together, but they speak almost exclusively about Gabe.
Luckily, women in minor roles generally don’t conform to stereotype. They’re seen holding positions of authority as judges or as superiors within the CTSU. In addition, they’re also seen as everyday women having coffee, going to uni, or partying.
It’s positive to see the globalized nature of Informer reflected in its showrunners. Rory Haines is white and hails from England while Sohrab Noshirvani was born in Iran, the two meeting in New York City during a screenwriting class at Columbia University. Together, they’ve written a show that feels intentional about race. It doesn’t hurt that its setting, London, is one of the most diverse cities in the world and Informer reflects that in its story.
Haines and Noshirvani mostly succeed, thanks in large part to their inclusion of an endearing British-Pakistani family, the Shars (which includes the protagonist of Raza Shar.) Raza’s ethnicity is never swept under the rug or made “colorblind”. True to real life, he gets treated differently by white versus BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) characters, although he very much sees himself as English and easily shoulders his multi-hyphenate identity as a child of Muslim immigrants. He’s neither a perfect angel nor a stereotyped criminal, and it’s good to see a major platform like the BBC showcase such a complex character of color in a way that feels natural and authentic.
Unfortunately, much of the aforementioned gains are undercut by the show’s casting of criminals and terrorists as almost entirely BAME. The only reason Gabe recruits Raza is for his access to Black and brown neighborhoods—not because he actually knows any terrorists, as Raza blurts aloud during the pilot. But beyond this one-off protest, Informer never challenges that assumption of criminality among majority-Black and brown neighborhoods.
To be clear, Informer does vehemently point out that not all Muslims are terrorists. But they completely forget that not all terrorists are Muslim. Last year, the British Home Office found that the largest ethnic group arrested for acts of terrorism were white. But the internalized bias against BAME holds so fiercely, that even an Iranian American showrunner upholds this racist paradigm.
It’s also frustrating to watch British law enforcement control the lives of those it deems expendable. One might assume that the writers sympathize with Raza and his family, as indicated by the unethical way Gabe forces Raza into his employ by threatening to deport his undocumented mother. But merely depicting unfairness isn’t enough—the script and dialogue needs to challenge this status quo explicitly. Instead, we helplessly watch as Raza gets pulled underwater by Gabe, an unlikable character who does awful things in the name of the greater good. Nonetheless, he remains the show’s other lead protagonist, treated more as a complex anti-hero than what he is—a weak-willed man who hurts everyone around him.
Overall, Informer does get credit for handling race with more nuance than its peers, such as another British drama, Bodyguard, which aggressively caricatures brown terrorists. But these peers set a low bar and while Informer clears it, it’s a near thing.
Informer expresses an exclusively straight and cisgender worldview. The closest we get to queer representation happens behind the camera, with actor Sharon D. Clarke playing the powerful DCI Rose Asante in a senior position at the CTSU. Clarke is openly gay and has been married to writer and director Susie McKenna since 2008.
Deduction for Religion: -0.25
The Shars are Muslim but are seldom seen practicing Islam, save for minor instances like seeing the father, Hanif Shar (Paul Tylak), don a crocheted taqiyah to attend a post-funeral reception. Still, the topic of religion is tackled within the Shar family. Youngest son Nasir (Reiss Jeram) is shown questioning the relative agnosticism with which he’s been raised after he’s been exposed to the extremist beliefs of his friend without fully understanding the words he’s parroting.
While this struggle humanizes Islam to a small degree, its trajectory not unlike the soul-searching one finds in Christian, Jewish, or Catholic households, Informer still generally conflates Islam with terrorism. This is a show centered on terrorism and around Muslims, and until that tired association is broken, no amount of holding up one family on a pedestal as the exception to that “rule” will be enough.
Perhaps no more indicator is needed than to note that Informer actually fails the Riz test on four of its five stipulations for positive Muslim representation. The Shars feel imminently modern, as the test calls for, but it fails by showing several instances of Muslims as angry, terrorism-adjacent men with misogynistic tendencies and who pose a threat to the Western way of life. The Shars might be one step forward, but every other Muslim character feels like two steps back.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 3.00/5
Informer requires time and attention to truly appreciate. While I enjoyed its efforts at circumventing TV tropes on terrorism, the show falls prey to its own thorniness on depictions of race, class, and even Islam. By relentlessly subjugating Black and brown lives to British systems of law, Informer implicitly normalizes the very biases it tries to critique.
In the end, a lackluster ending keeps Informer short of great, but viewers will have appreciated their investment in a thoughtful show that strives to give audiences something different and more human. It would even be the show we deserve, were its foundational premises not so flawed.