The plot is familiar, but the stars are always worth watching
Ray Liotta -- every bit as scary when he's trying to play a stable husband and father as when he's going utterly bat-guano crazy -- is Bobby Stevens, typical suburban husband and father. He has two kids, a cookie-cutter house, a job selling paper cups and a wife (Virginia Madsen) whose name -- Hope -- isn't a coincidence. They're a couple with a troubled past and plenty of secrets.
Bobby's past, it turns out, isn't a secret. He's an expert at his real job, which happens to be planning ambitious robberies. He's got one of those specialized teams that includes weapons suppliers, document forgers and a couple electronics whizzes. The supporting characters would be interchangeable if they weren't played by actors like Simon Baker, Jonny Lee Miller, Franky G. and Amy Smart and if the mastermind atop the organization weren't played by Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo.
"Smith" is counting heavily on the reservoirs of good faith for the cast, because Bobby's team isn't made up of "Ocean's Eleven"-style quippy, jovial hoods. The characters in "Smith" are the kind of bad news that you usually get on cable, rather than network TV. Bobby, who steals, lies to his wife and is prone to fits of eye-popping rage, is probably the most socially mainstreamed of the characters. Baker's charismatically psychotic Jeff and Smart's diversely amoral Annie are probably the most dangerous, with the other actors filling the shades in-between.
Directed by executive producer Chris Chulack, the pilot has a cold, austere visual sensibility and takes advantage of the steely Pittsburgh locations for the main heist. The pilot draws much of its relatability from putting its not-so-nice characters into welcoming environments, whether it's a beautiful sun-drenched romantic scene between Madsen and Liotta at a piano, or a vibrant sequence at a wedding. The characters are introduced early in the first episode amidst the somewhat botched robbery, so putting them in different contexts later makes them human, if not particularly sympathetic. Like so many post-Scorsese/Tarantino bands of criminals, the characters have shared history that includes romances, grudges and deep resentments, but they're all still pure professionals.
In addition to its familiarity, "Smith" is cursed by the kind of over-bearing seriousness that has colored much of John Wells' work, the quality that made shows like "Citizen Baines" and "The Evidence" difficult to watch and that "ER" and "The West Wing" often needed to overcome.
Where "Smith" goes after its well-acted opening is something of a question. In the very last minutes the FBI team on Bobby's tail is introduced, plus the weary Bobby insists to his boss that he only has "three or four more" jobs left in him. That means that the breakneck heist-an-episode pace won't continue, but how future episodes will balance job-plotting, Bobby's domestic life, flashbacks to past crimes and cat-and-mouse games with the law remains to be seen. For now, I'm content to watch Liotta do his slow-burn, to see Madsen playing a fleshed out character, and to see career-best performances from folks like Baker and Smart.