To coincide with the first episode of its second series, Anthony Nield has reviewed the forthcoming Region 2 release of Hustle : Series One, the BBC’s enjoyable, but essentially vapid con artist TV series.
In almost all but its country of origin and episode count, Hustle is an American show. Its flashy, briskly paced forays into the weekly escapades of a group of con artists may pay ample lip service to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remake, but a more overt influence would be the U.S. runaway success that is C.S.I. : Crime Scene Investigation. The con artists in question may not know it but they’re a demographic chasing bunch, covering both sexes, multi-ethnic and of varying age. Moreover, they’re all ridiculously glamorous, only speak the smartest of lines and always get their man (or woman, as the case may be). And just like C.S.I. and its ever expanding number of offshoots, they’re also essentially vapid creation, given only the basest of backgrounds and bare minimum of narrative arcs.
However, given America’s current moralistic stance on all things televisual, would Hustle ever appear on as mainstream a channel as whatever the U.S. equivalent of BBC1 is? After all, it’s not a group of forensic scientists who are being glamorised here, but a bunch of grifters. Indeed, in this respect it’s not impossible to detect a faint whiff of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The various characters may operate within London’s underworld – albeit a touristic London where the sun is always shining, the streets are always clean and even look inviting at night – but essentially they are all loveable rogues. As the scripts are constantly at pains to point out, these are not “thieves”, “crooks” or “muggers”, but people who target the greedy and those with “the morals of an alley cat”. Indeed, in episode two the motivations for the big scam, or “the long con” as its referred to here, are revenge, and in episode three an art fraud is put into action solely to back a soon-to-be-bankrupt business whom the gang had mistakenly ripped off. As is noted in the very first episode: “You can’t cheat an honest man.”
But, of course, in order to glamorise them so overtly, the writers need to make the characters as likeable as possible. And glamour is undoubtedly the key factor here. From its retro animated credits a la Catch Me If You Can onwards, Hustle is one giant excuse for style over substance, with seemingly every trick in the book being employed. Silent movie pastiches, nods and winks to camera, freeze frames, and even a song and dance number come into play over the six episodes, and surprisingly the series’ makers more often than not get away with it. There is an abundance of those smug, slow motion walks to camera that have proliferated wildly since Reservoir Dogs which make you increasingly itchy for the fast forward button, but otherwise the casting staves off any vacuity. Not that the likes of Adrian Lester, Marc Warren and Robert Glenister are particularly tested, but having seen them elsewhere and knowing that, if called upon, they could produce the dramatic results undoubtedly helps. Plus they bring a conviction to their roles which means that instances such as the aforementioned musical number come off far better than they really should. Moreover, the makers are employing a con trick of their own and constantly misdirecting us, much like C.S.I., from the fact that very little is actually going on by startling us with the elaborate twists and turns of their weekly scams. (And, yes, they are knowingly ripping off The Sting, as the various tongue-in-cheek nods testify.)
Yet whilst this works well as a piece of no-nonsense weekday evening fluff, there’s a question as to whether Hustle can sustain repeat viewings and, therefore, a DVD purchase. In this respect I’m not as convinced as elsewhere. This is a show designed for success, which means keeping things as simple as possible so that, theoretically at least, the variations are infinite. As long as a new long con can be invented by a writer then a new episode can be created. This may mean that there is a pleasing lack of soap operatics, but then there’s also none of the depth of, say, House of Games and as such no real reason to repeatedly go back to it. The potential is certainly there – after all, this must be a lonely business to “work” in – but its something, in this first series at least, is never effectively explored. And so whilst Hustle may run and run (at time of writing a third series has just been commissioned), for the time being it is unlikely to re-run and re-run.
Hustle’s DVD presentation easily matches, if not betters, its original TV transmission. Each episode is presented anamorphically at a ratio of 1.78:1 and offers no distinguishable flaws. The photography – surprisingly jazzy for a U.K. series – is shown off especially well with the colours being particularly vivid (though only as much as intended). More importantly, each episode is also entirely without damage, as should be expected from such a new release. The soundtrack is likewise as crisp as should be expected, here presented in its original stereo and ably coping with both the dialogue and seemingly constant scoring to wonderful effect.
The package is slightly let down by the extras, however, though the one special feature, a two part ‘Making Of’ entitled ‘Assembling the Team’, is perfectly acceptable. It’s an ordinary enough piece, but it details the series’ genesis and production to swift effect. Only when it interviews the various cast members does the jokiness get a little trying, although fans will be happy to see the forthcoming (at time of writing) second series being discussed, albeit briefly.
As with each episode this featurette comes with optional English subtitles.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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