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It may not be the second coming of Friday Night Lights or The Good Wife, but ABC’s Will Trent is probably my favorite broadcast network TV drama of the year. What I appreciate most about the Karin Slaughter adaptation is how quickly it established its characters, its location and the elements of its premise that are relatively distinctive. The show became what it aspired to be in a hurry.
No such alacrity accompanies ABC’s new drama The Company You Keep. Wade through two episodes of belabored exposition and The Company You Keep becomes a promising rom-com with thriller trappings and an interesting family backdrop — not a series fully realized but a series with some potential.
The Company You Keep
Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Catherine Haena Kim, William Fichtner, Tim Chiou, Freda Foh Shen, James Saito, Sarah Wayne Callies, Felisha Terrell, Polly Draper
Creators: Julia Cohen and Phil Klemmer
The kind of show it wants to be, basically, is The Catch, a Shonda Rhimes-produced comedic heist romance that ABC developed, redeveloped and redeveloped again over a truncated two-season run back in 2016-17. But if nobody at ABC is going to have the institutional memory to remember that they already made this show, who am I to bring it up?
This version is ostensibly adapted by Julia Cohen and Phil Klemmer from the South Korean series My Fellow Citizens!
Our heroes: Charlie Nicoletti (Milo Ventimiglia) is an extraordinarily gifted con man in a family of cons. He works with his ultra-cautious sister (Sarah Wayne Callies’ Birdie) and parents (William Fichtner’s Leo and Polly Draper’s Fran) to orchestrate big scores, but only big scores against people who really deserve it, because that’s how con artists work in movies and TV shows. They’re also eying that “one last con” that’ll allow them all to go straight, but a lucrative play on an Irish mobster goes pear-shaped.
Emma Hill (Catherine Haena Kim) is part of a family that aspires to be the Asian American Kennedys. I know this, because in the second episode, a character says that Emma’s mother (Freda Foh Shen) wants them to be the Asian American Kennedys. Her father (James Saito) is a former governor and her brother (Tim Chiou) is a senator. I know this because in the pilot, somebody addresses Emma at a party and declares, “Your father’s a former governor, your brother’s a senator, what does that make you?”
Everybody thinks Emma’s in data logistics, but she actually works for the CIA, albeit in a strangely secretive outpost of the CIA that hides behind a front called Pattern Logistics — but you know it’s actually the CIA because somebody added an insert-shot with a close-up of her very prominent “CIA” badge. Why does she keep her profession secret even from her family, and why is her job/skillset so unique that she has to work in a mysterious and hidden office? I haven’t the faintest!
Emma’s got problems in her personal life that lead to her sitting lonely at a hotel bar, where she meets Charlie in the aftermath of his job-gone-wrong. They flirt (joking about how they’re lying about their respective identities). They spend 36 hours together. There are feelings.
But Charlie is a con artist! And Emma is a CIA agent! How ever will they find a way to flirt attractively, while keeping their respective professional covers?
The Company You Keep is very, very clumsy at introducing a conceit that is unquestionably busy, but definitely not complicated.
My earlier suggestion was that it takes too long for The Company You Keep to settle into what its actual structure and rhythms will be, but it could just as easily be that it doesn’t take enough time. One character after another refers to Charlie’s brilliance, but I’ve seen two episodes and nothing he does is even vaguely clever, much less brilliant. Emma’s own brilliance is established by her doing one of those Sherlock Holmes quick-reads on a stranger, but the show doesn’t bother to establish the elements of her personal life that lead to her meeting with Charlie at the hotel bar, nor does it ask you to believe the psychology of that meeting.
These are things that the show has to present and move past in order to move forward, a bit like the laughably flimsy efforts to establish where, exactly, this show is taking place. I think some of it is Baltimore and some of it is Washington, DC, and none of it has any connection to the way the real Baltimore and DC look or feel. It’s all just Generic Glossy American City, accompanied by Generic Jaunty Heist Music and Generic Jazzy Editing. I never found myself hating The Company You Keep, but I definitely found myself cringing at the transfer of information and wishing that nearly every background detail could, as the kids say, have been an email.
Maybe halfway through the second episode, The Company You Keep gets all of that stuff out of the way. Well, not all of it. There’s a lot of exposition that still has to be presented. But the show that this settles into being is decent or, as I keep saying, has the potential to be decent, since I’ve only seen 20 minutes of it.
The paralleling of the two families, and therefore the paralleling of legitimate and illegitimate con artistry, is interesting. There will need to be more specifics, obviously. I already mentioned how bad the Nicoletti’s first con is and the con in the second episode, while vastly better, is more an opportunity for Fichtner to play funny dress-up than anything else, while the Hills are politicians in that nebulous television way that’s completely non-ideological and therefore bordering on meaningless.
But I like the care that has been taken to give the families and their interactions a similar shape. And I like the seeds of performances and characterizations, especially the warmth from the older generation of actors, all gifted enough to contribute nuance well beyond what was on the page. In the case of both families, the non-featured sibling has the least developed role, though at least Callies’ Birdie has hints of a meaningful relationship with a deaf daughter (Shaylee Mansfield), which I’m curious to see unfold.
More than anything, what works is the general chemistry between Ventimiglia and Kim. It isn’t the sort of combustible chemistry that drove the short-lived Whiskey Cavalier, another of ABC’s semi-recent attempts to mix a similarly frothy concoction, but they banter well together and they’re attractive together in the pretty-and-glossy way that everything in the first two episodes has been presented. They’re much more interesting as performers when they’re together than when they’re sharing scenes with anybody else in the cast. For a show like this, that’s actually exactly what you want. If you aren’t a bit disappointed any time Charlie and Emma aren’t flirting or playing dress-up — both of their jobs require a lot of dress-up — then you’re not investing in a show like this in the right way.
It remains to be seen if the show The Company You Keep eases into by its second episode is sustainable. You can only have a con-of-the-week structure as a longterm device if the cons are better than they’ve been so far. You can only expect viewers to care about an inconsequential political race — Emma’s senator brother is up for reelection — if there’s some substance to the politics. And, more than anything, a relationship built on a key secret can play in suspense and obfuscation for a while, but not infinitely. There’s enough here that I’ll give it a little more time.
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