Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Is there a prouder American institution than that of the con artist? They abound throughout our history and literature. Huckleberry Finn adventured with the Duke and the Dauphin, Herman Melville gave us a literal boatload of con men in The Confidence Man, and Paul Newman and Robert Redford grifted and conned their way through The Sting.
And it’s not just fiction. Not only are all the aforementioned con artists based on real people, but they just keep popping up in the tale of America: Bernie Madoff, Frank Abagnale and Mel Weinberg are all living men infamous for their tricks of confidence. Even the sitting president has been labeled a con artist by both his detractors and members of his own political party.
With all this said, is it necessary to tell another story centered around con artists? Someone certainly seems to think so. The first two months of 2017 give us the debut of two new scripted television series centered around con artists. The first is the critically-acclaimed Sneaky Pete, whose pilot has been around since 2015 but finally saw its first season released on January 13. The second is Imposters, a Bravo show that describes itself as “a new original scripted series” about “a con-artist who is as beautiful as she is dangerous.”
The show begins with a simple premise. Not yet married for a month, protagonist Ezra Bloom (Rob Heaps) returns home to discover that the love of his life has absconded with the entirety of his assets, leaving nothing behind but a goodbye video and some blackmail materials (the blackmail, it’s worth noting, involves not Ezra’s past but his father’s).
From here, two narratives begin. The first follows the con artist Maddie, played by Inbar Lavi, as she flees one con for the next. We learn that she works not independently but as part of a team, and their next task appears to be another routine seduce-and-destroy mission. She is the seductress, while the other two members of the team infiltrate via more mundane methods; all of them answer to a mysterious employer named The Doctor. Meanwhile, Ezra quits his job at his family’s firm and mopes around his house, watching their wedding video, eating pizza and drinking beer.
The show has been described as a “black comedy,” which is only accurate part of the time. In its best moments, it’s certainly that. The funniest – and certainly darkest – scene of the pilot is the one in which Ezra tries to figure out how to kill himself using items in his house, including watching a subtitled YouTube video on how to tie a noose. He’s interrupted by Richard (Parker Young), a man claiming to be from the FBI but who turns out to be another victim of the exact same scheme as Ezra, perpetrated by the same woman. One knows her as Ava, the other as Alice, and both are seeking revenge while nursing their broken hearts.
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t always lean into its cynical humor. It also employs some predictable tropes, most of which don’t need to be catalogued here. The dynamic between Ezra and Richard – and a third victim, Jules (Marianne Rendon), who appears at the end of the second episode – is at times genuinely funny and at other times clichéd, odd couple bickering. A line about Mission: Impossible III works, while the gluten-free jokes don’t add much.
It can also be hard to reconcile the show’s two storylines with one another. Maddie’s con artist narrative, while often compelling, is almost entirely devoid of humor and takes up major pieces of the narrative. It’s also hard to call it suspenseful, as by the end of the third episode it’s unraveled in a mostly predictable manner. If it weren’t for the hints at a deeper conflict between Maddie’s employer and her mark – and the sudden appearance of Uma Thurman as fixer Lenny Cohen at the end of the third episode – there would be very little reason to ask “and then what happens” in regards to her story.
Again, the show is at its best when it embraces its violent sense of humor. One could even argue that Imposters is neo-noir, or at least that it could become so. All the ingredients of a good noir tale are here: a femme fatale, a network of con artists, a team of unlikely detectives, and a mix of mystery, cynicism, and potential violence.
Like HBO’s Bored to Death, Jonathan Lethem’s novels, and other lighthearted neo-noir narratives, Imposters acknowledges its noir-ish inspirations by having characters directly reference Raymond Chandler and call one another out on their detective delusions. They even pick up a copy of Jim Thompson’s 1963 noir novel The Grifters and reference it for tips on how to be grifters themselves. Maddie’s faux Belgian accent (as Ava Bloom) also hints at other inspirations for Impostors, including Victor Hugo’s Thernadier family and the famous imposter Frederic Bourdoin (who himself was depicted in the 2012 documentary The Imposter).
One can’t remark on the show without noting one particular moment in the first episode, when Ezra refers to Ava as his “so-called wife.” Not only is this a reference to the 90s show My So-Called Life, but apparently My So-Called Wife was the working title of Imposters. The relevance to today’s world couldn’t be stronger, with the sitting president’s tendency to use “so-called” as an adjective when referring to his “enemies.”
Like a lot of shows, Imposters establishes a narrative that could go in one of several directions, and it’s hard to know what route it will take after seeing the three episodes available to critics for screening. The dynamic between Ezra, Richard, and Jules looks like it could propel the narrative, but the trio hasn’t done much beyond brainstorm and eat so far. Jules’s best moment is a therapy session, during which she declares “so I’m starting to get triggered, right?” The show is also in danger of having too inconsistent of a tone. Perhaps they can lend some of that storyline’s humor to Maddie’s. And if the narrative builds into something as clichéd as all the main characters teaming up to bring down the mysterious Doctor villain, then that will be a major disappointment, based on the possibilities established so far.
While Imposters is not perfect, there are continued hints at the excellent show it could become. One has to have an optimism that the show will continue to embrace the cynical, noir-ish elements that have thus far mostly stayed beneath its surface.
Imposters is an ambitious neo-noir black comedy, centered around a con artist and her victims. It’s an enjoyable watch, but suffers from inconsistent tone.