Conman Charlie Nicoletti and his family are on the verge of pulling off one final, massive sleight of hand, worth millions and – finally – they will be able to retire. But when a last-minute betrayal leaves them high and dry, Charlie is left to drown his sorrows in a hotel bar and work out a way he can help the family who have always stood by his side. Across town, CIA agent Emma Hill has been looking for a way to bring down an Irish mobster – who just happens to have been the Nicolettis’ recent target – but things aren’t going well in or out of the office. It seems Emma too has been let-down, this time by her bed-hopping boyfriend and ends up drowning her sorrows in the same hotel bar.
Now, the two of them are sat next to each other: two experts at human behaviour who know nothing about each other’s job or real identity and yet have an undeniable attraction. Do they want to know each others’ secrets or are they just ships passing in the night? It seems fate has brough them together, but despite their mutual passion, is this animal magnetism or just an inevitable collision course that will put both of them in danger?
There’s a game I sometimes play – deciding whether I could have worked out what series a network is on merely by watching it without logos or promotions. The Company You Keep absolutely feels like a FOX show, yet it’s there on the ABC schedule. Any prettier than it already is (or had slightly younger leads playing massively younger leads) and this would be The CW. Any more likely to be cancelled because it’s a decent premise but not quite enough people are getting passionate about it… it would be NBC. There’s really nothing new about the premise of this new primetime drama…the idea of two people from opposite sides of the law falling for each other while simultaneously deceiving each other has been a staple of many a story and it almost always comes down to the chemistry generated and how long the central conceit can be held. Think of it as the sub-genre of Crim-Rom rather than rom-com.
So The Company You Keep fills a very particular template and niche and doesn’t generate any real surprises, though on a major US network circa Monday evening, you’re probably unlikely to be tuning in for gritty shock-value and menace. It’s all typically streamlined and stylish with the highest levels of primetime wish-fulfilment: beautiful people, high-society balls, bespoke suits and dresses and glass-walled apartments overlooking a picturesque neon city that probably cost the GDP of small countries. On closer inspection, even the supposed street-level bars that are supposed to provide a contrast are really just as pseudo-stylish and populated with families who might talk about working their way up from the gutters but somehow still look beautiful and as far from the breadline as you can get. And, of course, there’s the action quotient – be it on the dance-floor, the distinctly PG bedroom or obligatory deserted warehouses.
The chemistry between CIA-agent Emma (Catherine Haena Kim) and top-class con-artist Charlie Nicoletti (Milo Ventimiglia) is one driven by the plot – two people suddenly finding themselves in a high-end hotel bar and on the wrong side of separate betrayals… and finding a no-commitment thirty-six hours of sex and solace, fun and frolicking with no demands to open up or reveal accurate information about their names or professions. I’m not sure I buy the idea of immediate, irresistable and innate chemistry between them as individuals, or actors, but in the circumstance of a memorable ‘hook-up’ it’s charming enough. (The idea that they actually get drunk and watch tv rather than immediately jumping into bed until the following morning shows they’re totally responsible people with a tiny bit of self-control).
A promising factor is that we’re shown rather than just told about the Nicoletti family smarts, though most of those ‘smarts’ rely on camera-friendly confidence under pressure. Charlie has a weakness for the ladies – which may yet be his downfall – but when he’s not distracted by the fairer sex, he’s the kind of con-artist that can walk in and through the most dangerous situations. Ventimiglia has the charisma and has certainly put some effort into technique and the sleight of hand with playing cards (a tropey but effective motif for every on-screen con-artist) and it looks to be genuine rather than camera-trickery. But we can also see that he has a genuine longing to have a lifestyle that doesn’t require him to be lying all the time and that had the opener’s caper gone correctly, he might be quite happy – at least for a while – living in a style to which he wants to become accustomed rather than grifting for the sake of it. He’s less of an adrenaline junkie than we usually see and more of a pragmatist – knowing what has to be done (legal or not) and doing it, albeit with a gleam in his eye and a certain flair.
Equally his relatives feel like a genuine familial unit – or at least the televisual kind. His older sister Birdie (Prison Break/The Walking Dead‘s Sarah Wayne Callies) is likely just as good in her own way at overseeing their ‘projects’ and parents Leo and Polly (William Fichtner and Polly Draper) feel like they’ve been in the family business for years – though Leo in particular is showing the strain and possibly the first hints of memory-loss. Of course, to make the show work, the Nicolettis have to be the kind of career-criminals who never really hurt anyone and who usually rob the people who can actively afford to claim it all back on insurance… another rather cliche mission statement so that we don’t question all those crimes too closely. It’s not altruism, but while it’s not quite Robin Hood territory – the sticky fingers are still well-manicured – it’s certainly more Leverage in inclination than Sopranos.
Emma Hill’s background is more lightly featured but we get that she’s that other tv cliche, the beautiful, rich girl who is determined to ‘make her own way’ outside of the family business yet who enjoys most of the benefits of her family fortune offers. As one high-society party-guest notes with some helpful exposition that will be expanded upon in coming episodes: “Your father’s a former governor, your brother’s a senator, what does that make you?” It actually makes her a top-level CIA operative, but shhhhhhh, let’s just say it’s data logistics and management. Putting her work first she hasn’t noticed that her boyfriend has wandered into a different bed, but nor is she totally surprised given that she accepts it never felt like the real deal. Emma, as all good CIA agents must – can read a room pretty well, though Charlie hits her blind-spot at just the right time and vice versa. The show calls for neither of these trust-averse individuals to ask all the questions that you know they should, but this is also the kind of show where that works for a while but inevitably becomes the stumbling block… what will they do when they find out?
The Company You Keep ticks all the boxes that mean it’ll be around for at least one season, depending on how things develop beyond the basic. It’s the kind of show you’ll watch as long as the ratings remain steady, but not campaign to save should the ratings begin to fall. By the end of the pilot episode it’s likely that you’ll like the characters and their dilemma well enough to come back for more… but without feeling there’s anything here that will make it must-not-miss.