Breaking away from mainstream Hollywood portrayals of counter-terrorism and Muslim immigrant communities, Informer succeeds precisely because it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. The series is firmly rooted in its desire to not be dramatically over-sensationalized (for instance, there is no bombing of Buckingham Palace or Big Ben) and to portray its minority characters as flawed but complex individuals.
Our protagonist Raza Shar (played by Nabhaan Rizwan) leads an ordinary life: as a high school graduate, he packs boxes at a shipping company for a living, and as a young man, he parties with his friends by night. He shares a close relationship with his young brother Nasir (played by Reiss Jeram), and plays nice with his Pakistani parents. This peaceful existence shatters when Raza gets arrested by the police after a night gone wrong. While in custody, Raza is coerced into becoming an informer for the counterrorism unit. (Fittingly tone-setting, Raza informs the police, “I don’t know any fucking terrorists, bruv!”)
To infiltrate a possible terrorist cell, grizzled counter-terrorism police detective Gabe (played by Paddy Considine) orders Raza to befriend Dadir (played by Roger Jean Nsengiyumva), playing on the brief connection the two young men shared on the night of their respective arrests. Hailing from a Muslim Somali family living in public housing, Dadir is the younger brother of a recently slain informer that Gabe had previously handled. As Raza and Dadir’s friendship takes off in earnest, Raza realizes that following Gabe’s commands will take him further away from his family and his new friend.
The series is particularly hard-hitting because it focuses on underprivileged groups in the English capital. Anchored in working class Whitechapel (made up of nearly 40 percent immigrants from outside the European Union and over 40 percent Muslim), the narrative speaks more to the changes in Raza’s relationships with friends and family than his adventures busting terrorists. There are no generic stock characters molded by Islamophobic and xenophobic sentiments; nearly every character is humanized. Even the radicalized Akash Williams (played by Kaine Zajaz) has a family and passions that aren’t related to his militant approach to his religion.
Especially praise-worthy is the portrayal of code-switching. Throughout each episode, Raza vacillates between fitting into his own neighborhood and occupying a more educated persona. The difference is most obvious in attire (a red track jacket and more casual clothing versus a suit and tie), but the way he speaks also changes: in Whitechapel, he uses a lot of slang, but in professional situations, his accent is over-pronounced. These changes are for more than simple comfort: Raza is exceedingly aware that it is dangerous to be a Muslim and a Pakistani in England. While watching news footage of a recent terror attack in the Netherlands, his father warns Raza, who is headed out for the night, “Anyone picks on you, don’t be brave. Tell them you’re a Hindu.” In unison, they say, “Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh.”
My only complaint is the weakness of the terrorism plot. With the limited screen time allotted to the criminals supporting terrorism, Informer can’t afford to introduce too many red herrings or describe a multilayered operation. Unsurprisingly, the series attempts to accomplish both and performs disappointingly in that respect.
Despite this shortcoming, the perceptive viewer will realize that Informer has little to do with terrorism and everything to do with telling the stories of people who rarely see their lives on screen.
The series is available on Amazon Prime.