Catch My Grift

Illustration by Charles WilkinPhoto: Amanda Searle/Kudos/Courtesy of BBC

My only complaint about Hustle, the hyperkinetic new crime-caper series set in London and settling in for the next eighteen Saturday nights on AMC, is that it omits Scott Joplin. Ragtime piano was not only the perfect sound for The Sting, the 1973 Paul Newman–Robert Redford romp, but seems to me to be the appropriate moody music to jump-start almost any other sting as well: all syncopated twinkletoes and tiddledywinks. What makes the whole idea of the sting—con, scam, swindle, grift, hustle, or heist—so appealing is the Brer Rabbit roguishness, the triumph of smarts over smashmouth. It’s jujitsu: Greed, a heavyweight knucklehead, is suckered into leaning so hard that it floors itself. But it’s also teamwork: The Mission: Impossible TV series was so much more interesting than either Tom Cruise big-screen film because the series had a repertory theater and tricky scripts, whereas all Tom had were muscles and a mask.

Hustle has Adrian Lester, the supercool young black actor who watched John Travolta eat and screw in Primary Colors, as Mickey Stone, a Zen master of “the long con.” And Robert Vaughn, a touch grayer but otherwise still Napoleon Solo, plays Mickey’s mentor Albert Stroller, a habitué of the hotels, casinos, and clubs where the likeliest marks are found. Plus Marc Warren as Danny Blue, the obligatory hothead, Jaime Murray as Stacie Monroe, the obligatory femme fatale, and Robert Glenister as Ash Morgan, the props builder and flop artist. The BBC producers who must come up with an engrossing scam each week and then style it up in slo-mo, slapstick, and freeze-frame are veterans of such shows as EastEnders, Spooks, and Touching Evil.

It’s amazing how much having to fool a mark ups the narrative ante. Writers who are suddenly obliged to be original turn out to have actual imaginations. You won’t want to miss a song-and-dance routine on the January 23 Hustle that’s right out of Dennis Potter’s psoriatic portmanteau. Nor a hand of strip poker with Stacie and Danny. And there are moments when one or another hustler stops to look directly into the camera, as if to wink. It’s a tribute to the show that we wink back, complicit in their art forgeries, falsified stock quotes, fake IDs, Photoshopped magazine covers, fixed ATMs, and hospital “discounts” for cash. They aren’t even really stealing, are they, since victims hand over money to them voluntarily? They merely “feed the greed.”

A publicity package accompanying DVDs of the first six Hustles mentions such films as Ocean’s Eleven, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Grifters, and Catch Me If You Can. I am so superannuated as to recall the seventies TV series Switch, in which Robert Wagner as a reformed con artist and Eddie Albert as a retired bunco cop teamed up to sting the stingers. Oddly, they lost confidence in their own premise midway through the second season and turned the show into one more mediocre PI series. But if we want to go highbrow, both Herman Melville and Thomas Mann wrote novels about confidence men; Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Stanislaw Lem wrote reviews of nonexistent books; Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a self-scam of the highest order; and French theorists of narratology and deconstruction con everybody. Nor have I mentioned our being lied to by professionals about everything from fixed quiz shows, U-2 overflights, and cold fusion to Watergate, Abscam, Chappaquiddick, Iran/contra, S&Ls, and WMDs.

Against such a cosmic hustle, the other new series don’t stand a chance. If I am partial to Crumbs (ABC, Thursdays, 9:30 p.m.), it’s because of Jane Curtin, who comes home from a psych ward to which she was committed after her husband, William Devane, left her for another woman, only to find that her two adult sons, Fred Savage and Eddie McClintock, one of whom is supposed to be gay and have gone off to Hollywood while the other stayed home to run the family restaurant, are still behaving like 2-year-olds. This is funnier than Emily’s Reasons Why Not (ABC, Mondays, 9 p.m.), though Heather Graham is certainly cute as an editor of self-help books who can’t sustain relationships, as is the new guy in marketing who turns out not to be gay but merely a Mormon and a virgin.And it doesn’t smell so much of jockstraps as does Four Kings (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.), in which lifelong twentysomething buddies Josh Cooke, Seth Green, Todd Grinnell, and Shane McRae move into a dead grandmother’s Manhattan apartment to postpone the inevitables of “marriage, career, and rehab.” This almost, though not quite, makes me want to move to South Beach (UPN, Wednesdays, 8 p.m.), a Las Vegas without the laughs, where Brooklyn buddies Marcus Coloma and Chris Johnson spend more time in nightclubs than they do in seawater and Vanessa Williams is meant to be somebody’s mother.

In 1974, The Sting nabbed seven Oscars—including one for Marvin Hamlisch’s score, which included the underappreciated work of nineteenth-century ragtime composer Scott Joplin and helped establish “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag” as piano-recital standards. In vogue 56 years after his death, Joplin broke into the Top 40 in 1974 and received a special posthumous Pulitzer in 1976. On the downside, he’ll forever be associated with tweed hats, shady grifters, and illicit high jinks—even though his fin de siècle ragtime predated Redford and Newman’s Depression-era shenanigans by a good 25 years.

AMC. Saturdays, 10 p.m.
Premieres January 14.

Catch My Grift