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TELEVISION REVIEW

CBS's 'Smith' could be a killer

Surprisingly, Ray Liotta is not the flagrant psychopath in "Smith." That role belongs to pretty boy Simon Baker, who kicks cats and blows away strangers who irk him. This time, Liotta is a closet psychopath, a rabid thief who's under cover as a suburban LA dad. He's gentle with his wife and kids, but he's got a gun and a fierce glare -- the Liotta glare -- always at the ready.

"Smith" is about closets, about hiding in public, but it's not light like "Weeds," in which a suburban mom deals pot. This sharp new CBS series, premiering tonight at 10 on Channel 4, is a drama about a man who's bifurcated his life so thoroughly that he suffers no moral anxiety about his duplicities. He leaves his wife for "business trips," during which he leads a gang of thieves -- including Baker's firepower expert, Amy Smart's master of disguise, and Franky G's getaway guy -- in armed robberies. The debut finds them lifting a Rembrandt, a Delacroix, and a Tintoretto from a Pittsburgh museum.

"Smith" -- the title is what the FBI calls the mastermind they're after for the robberies -- is the best of a recent group of heist dramas, including NBC's "Heist" and FX's "Thief," both of which were cance led. It perfectly reflects TV's increasingly popular "sleeper cell" metaphor, that even the most banal of suburbanites could be leading nefarious double lives.

The show, created by John Wells of "ER," moves with the deliberate swiftness that's made him both a popular and a quality TV producer. Wells' s smartest move with ``Smith" has been his casting choices. Liotta brings a sinister air to his home-life scenes, with his pasty skin and eyelashes that seem luridly painted on. But then during the heists, he comes off like a grounded good guy. He perfectly defines the two faces of this series.

And, instead of playing the victimized wife, Virginia Madsen brings strength and mystery to Hope, who is in the closet about parts of her own life. She cultivates the same ambiguity that Edie Falco perfected in the early years of ``The Sopranos," skirting full consciousness, knowing but not knowing about her husband's real work.

Shohreh Aghdashloo just has to show up to add depth. She plays the wealthy lady who gives Liotta and his crew their assignments. It's a small role, but she nonetheless casts an aura of menace over the whole series, just as she did as a sleeper-cell member in "24." Purring and seductive, she has evil playing behind her wide eyes.

None of the characters are easy to like, which may keep viewers from attaching to ``Smith." There are no heroes so far, and only Franky G's driver holds any promise of having a conscience. You might expect Smart to play a character troubled by her dirty work, based on her California- girl looks and her previous roles. But her showgirl is as cold-hearted as the rest of the gang, and a romantic problem for one of them -- a newly freed convict played by Jonny Lee Miller.

Another threat to "Smith" is the new fall TV roster: It's too good for its own good. Usually, two or three dramas stand out, but this year there are about eight pilots to like, including "Smith." Some of the better ones are sure to get lost in the crowd. Alas, even the freakiest of TV freaks only has room for so many shows.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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