The Con is On

"The con: an invisible crime build on the premise of finding someone who wants something for nothing, and then giving them nothing for something."
Recently, I've been re-watching a bunch of episodes from the first three seasons of Hustle, in which a troupe of professional confidence tricksters play the long con on credulous and avaricious marks – who expect to get something for nothing, but end up getting nothing for something.

Would these faces lie to you?
After a so-so season earlier this year, these episodes helped jog my memory as to how the stories roped me into watching this show in the first place. The convoluted plotting, facetious characters and tongue-in-cheek approach was the antidote needed after trudging through a batch, of then, recent Poirot and Miss Marple adaptations – which were very bleak, tone-wise, and suggested P.D. James rather than Agatha Christie. Needless to say, the ambitious plotting and light-hearted nature of these deft capers invigorated my downtrodden spirit.

The contemporary Robin Hood, who leads this modern-day band of merry men, is the infamous, all-round confidence trickster Michael "Mickey Bricks" Stone, who is best described as a cross-breed between the charming gentleman rogue and the brilliant amateur detective. He has a labyrinthine mind that is capable of devising the most intricate schemes with the outward appearance of seemingly random, unrelated events and very few are able to outthink or even second-guess him. This talent is not only employed to separate a mark from his money, but also to help them escape from tight situations.

This craft for deceiving was discovered and cultivated by his mentor, Albert Stroller, a semi-retired, legendary conmen from the US (played brilliantly by Robert Vaughn) who acts as the crew's roper by enmeshing potential marks in one of their traps – and my favorite character in the series. A cunning old fox if there ever was one! Ash "Three Socks" Morgan's main job is that of the teams fixer by turning Mickey's elaborate schemes into workable plans, but he's also a talented grifter in his own right and I love the episodes in which he impersonates a Dutchman. It's so bad it's good!

Mickey, Albert and Ash are the core members of this criminal enterprise, but in the first four seasons their business partners were Danny Blue and Stacie Monroe. The former is an ex-short con artist turned long con rookie and apprentice of Mickey, in spite of regularly challenging his leadership, while the latter is a beautiful, all-round-grifster and potential love interest to both Mickey and Danny. They were replaced in the fifth season by the brother-and-sister team of Sean and Emma Kennedy.

Regardless of their status as professional criminals, this gang isn't made up of hardened thugs who support their millionaire lifestyle with narcotics or running a protection racket, but by skinning fat cats who are a public nuisance or a holy terror to their immediate surroundings. In the episode The Hustler's News of Today, they take down a tabloid paper after one of their targets, a friend of Stacie's, attempted suicide due to false accusations of embezzling funds, while in Missions they face-off with a bend copper who wants to cut-in on their profits.

However, not every episode is modeled on this pattern and the crew often has to deal with authority figures, who want to use their unlawful expertise to further their own cause, and the best example can be found in Law and Corruption – in which an over ambitious cop plants a suitcase full of cocaine on Mickey and blackmails him into capturing a famous gentleman thief for him. A similar situation arises in Cops and Robbers when a head of security, an ex-cop who once beat Albert Stroller at his own game, strong-arms them into entrapping a bank-burglar who has been targeting branch offices and his employers are not amused. 

And then there are the Ocean's Eleven knock-offs, in which they meticulous plan daring heists and impossible escapes. Big Daddy Calling has them visiting grifters heaven, Las Vegas, where they plan to loot the publicly displayed, $5 million jackpot of the Big Daddy Fruit Machine. There's just one tiny problem: it's situated in a tightly secured casino run by a ruthless mob boss, but then again, this is the same team who successfully burgled The Tower of London in Eye of the Beholder

In New Recruits and Tiger Troubles, they try their hands at the locked room illusion as they made a painting disappear from a gallery protected with a perfect security system and spirited a diamond encrusted statue from a sealed bank vault – but I've seen these tricks before, although, they were cleverly executed here.

If you haven't got the idea already, these stories are a delicious, crafty criminal fantasies that purposely stretch probability, occasionally knocking down the fourth wall and refuses to apologize for giving viewers like me 60-minutes of unadulterated entertainment – and I highly recommend this comical capers to everyone bored with the current crop of crime shows. Just bear through the introductory pilot episode. It's necessary to establish the characters.

Finally, checkout my review of Freeman's The Stoneware Monkey (1939), which, for some reason, failed to pop-up on numerous blog feeds.


  1. It's nice to see that the more light-hearted series, like HUSTLE, are making a comeback. One of the most popular crimes shows on British TV at the moment is NEW TRICKS, which is dramatic but with a strong undercurrent of humour. The public love it because the series can tell a good story without having to be unrelievedly grim. It also deliberately parodies a number of cop show cliches, with one of the cops being a brilliant but OCD eccentric, another being deceptively mild mannered, another being a tough guy with a series of failed marriages behind him, and all kept in line by a tough female boss.

    HUSTLE reminds me quite strongly of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (the tv show rather than the movies). You know what they are trying to do, but you don't know all of the details. Part of the fun lies in trying to keep up with the plot. Unlike M:I however, it does feel like it is winking at the audience. You can't complain about the wilder flights of fancy, because the writers and actors obviously realise this, and are completely unrepentant. The real bit of genius was casting Robert Vaughan. He is such a 60s icon that he makes the show feel like a sixties show out of time. Anyway, whatever he does, however impossible, you just say to yourself "Of course he got away with it-he's THE MAN FROM UNCLE!"

  2. This sounds like an enjoyable show- I'll try to remember to take a look when I get back home. (Yup, I basically have 5 days left before I leave.)

    Do you know what I've just realized is kind of scary? You've had this blog a few months more than I have had mine, and yet only a handful of posts seperate us from having done the same amount of writing- and thus, reading/watching/listening/etc...

  3. You might want to take a look at Kurosagi, a manga about a con-artist who only targets other con-artists. There's also a live action series with the ever-cute Horimaki as one of the lead roles.

  4. @Sexton Blake

    Well, the actors are sometimes quite literarily winking at their viewers, and earlier on the series they even turned to the cameras to address us – explaining con tricks and the rules of the game. I think this, more than anything else, give them the leeway needed to get away with pretty much everything. You're basically a silent partner in the crew, i.e. a part of the show, because the characters are aware that you're watching them. And the fact that the plots can be delightfully complex is the icing on the cake.

    There have been talks of a TV series based on Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit books, and that idea has all the potential to be a perfect cross between lighthearted comedy (Bryant's antics) and grim storytelling (the cases Bryant and May investigate).


    Hey, that says more about your obsessive reading/viewing habits than mine. ;) You're currently reading two or three books against one of mine. Yes, I realize that pointing to someone else, who currently uses more than I do, is considered to be the symptoms of a junkie, but that doesn't make it any less true! ;D


    Interesting. According to this series, successfully conning another conman is the highest possible achievement a grifter can aim for – especially if the conman expected to be conned.

  5. TomCat: The breaking of the fourth wall is another of the things that makes if feel more like a 60s show. Just think of Roger Moore as The Saint; talking directly to the audience at the beginning of every story, and looking up at the halo that appears over his head before the opening credits start.