The Alexandrian

Hustling Hustle

July 30th, 2007

I’m a bit bummed at the moment.

I recently discovered the BBC series Hustle. The show is about a group of professional con-men and every episode features a con in the style The Sting. As soon as I heard the concept, I knew this was a show I had to check out. And as soon as I saw the first episode I was completely hooked.

The show truly delivers on its promise: Every episode is a tightly-scripted and carefully-constructed piece that delivers the special magic of the long con. It really does feel as if you’re watching an episodic version of Ocean’s Eleven.

Adrian Lester, who plays the role of the mastermind and leader for the group, exudes the confidence, slickness, and sex appeal of a Brad Pitt or a Robert Redford. Robert Vaughn, who plays the wizened master, has the quiet mastery of a Paul Newman or George Clooney. The cons themselves are clever, elaborate, and masterfully executed. The entire show reeks of glamour and cleverness and sophistication.

But what really makes the show click is that the writers and directors clearly understand that, when you’re making a movie (or television series) about a long con, the first thing you must do is con the audience. The creators of Hustle are constantly trying to keep one step ahead of you, and it’s a real joy to try to keep one step ahead of them.

So why am I bummed?

I’ve just hit the fourth season of the series, and it all seems to be falling apart. Adrian Lester, for whatever reason, left the show. This has left the show without it’s strong center — it’s become Ocean’s Eleven without Danny Ocean. At the same time, the writing seems to have become sloppy, bloated, and ham-fisted. The cleverness and slickness is gone. Some of this may be intentional since, without Adrian Lester’s character, the team itself lacks that cleverness and slickness. But the result is simply not as satisfying.

And perhaps the creative team has simply used up its ideas. There are only so many ways in which the basic components of a con can be spun, after all, before you’re really just spinning your wheels. I was certainly seeing some weaknesses appearing even towards the end of the third season.

For example, one of the clever storytelling conceits the show employed in its very first episode was the freeze-frame: While the con is running, the action will suddenly enter a freeze frame — except for the grifters themselves, who will take the opportunity to turn to the camera and begin explaining the nature of the con. This was slick and clever and very well done. It has led to a general friendliness with the fourth wall in the series, in which the audience is drawn into the grifters’ inner circle through knowing looks, glances, double-takes, and the like.

But as the series has gone on, this use of the fourth wall has begun to be, in my opinion, abused. This unfortunate trend culminates late in the third season when the entire cast suddenly breaks into a full-fledged Bollywood musical number. They were, at the time, executing a con in which they attempted to convince a mark to invest in a Bollywood film (so there was some semblance of a connection). But, whatever the excuse may have been, the reality is that not only the con, but the characters and the dramatic reality of the sequence were all put on hold for a self-indulgent and utterly unnecessary extravagance.

So, in any case, I’m bummed because I have a strong feeling that this show has jumped the shark on me.

If it has, though, I’m going to keep my eye on the silver lining: I got eighteen really exceptional episodes of television in the show’s first three seasons (of six episodes each). And if that’s all I get, that’s more than most series can ever boast of.

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One Response to “Hustling Hustle”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    Ugh. Not only is that a bad course to take with the Danny Blue character, it’s a *cliched* bad course.
    “The apprentice has become the master.”

    It’s a cliche that can be effective if done properly, especially in a show such as Hustle. Done poorly, though, it stinks.

    Sticking around to taunt a mark? That’s out of character for basically the entire crew. That makes me very upset at whoever wrote that episode.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a major staff change in the creative team.
    Check the credits.
    Wednesday, August 01, 2007, 10:58:11 AM

    Justin Alexander
    I’ve finished the first three episodes of season 4 now. It’s just not clicking for me. They’ve brought in a new actor to replace Adrian Lester, but in the process they’re trying to reposition Danny Blue as a the leader of the team and the mentor to the new character. And Danny Blue, as a character, was nowhere near the point where that’s appropriate for his character — or for the other characters to put up with it — so the whole show is just hitting a discordant note over and over and over again.

    It isn’t helped, perhaps, that this discordant new direction is being accompanied by a precipitous decline in the quality of the writing. The scripts have become bloated and direction-less.

    There’s a point in the most recent episode where the crew hangs around in order to taunt their mark after they’ve taken their money. It’s just so petty and utterly at odds with everything the show was about in the first three seasons that I think I’m going to have to check the credits and see if there was an entire sea-change of creative talent.

    It’s not so much that the show has become actively bad, but it’s definitely become thoroughly mediocre. Maybe Lester left because he saw the writing on the wall.
    Wednesday, August 01, 2007, 2:00:54 AM

    Thanks for the heads up. I’ve only gotten to see the first season so far, and I love it. I’ll see the 2nd and 3rd, but I might have to give the 4th a wait.
    Tuesday, July 31, 2007, 5:02:24 PM

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