Imagine if you spent hours watching a chef prepare a five layer chocolate cake with mocha filling and sprinkles on top only to have him serve you a plate of steamed vegetables. Yes, the vegetables are what you should be eating, but damn, that cake looked good. That’s how I felt after watching the pilot of ABC’s new series ‘Scoundrels‘ (Sunday, June 20 at 9/8c). The show is about a family of petty criminals, the Wests, who take great pride in their cons and scams. The obvious comparison is FX’s ‘The Riches,’ the dark series about a family of grifters who stole a suburban family’s identity as a cover. Because ‘Scoundrels’ is a network show, it presents a thoroughly sanitized version of the criminal life. It is repeatedly stated that the Wests will not commit violent crimes and stay away from drugs. This, of course, means that 90% of dramatically interesting crimes are off limits. Bring on the white collar scams and the parking violations! ‘Breaking Bad‘ this is not. But it keeps all the characters rootable, especially since, at least in the pilot, all of their victims are less sympathetic then they are. This is a breezy, fun show that taps into all of our fantasies about cutting corners and avoiding the 9 to 5 life — only to switch gears in the last ten minutes of the show and become something I found far less interesting.
Catch a Sneak Peek of ‘Scoundrels’:
The pilot opens with the West matriarch, Cheryl (Virgina Madsen) and patriarch Wolf (David James Elliot) having passionate sex as cops swarm the house. This is such a common occurrence that everyone is on a first name basis. Elliot is sexy and exciting as the crook with a twinkle in his eye and unconditional love for his family of freaks. The Wests’ misdemeanor crime wave is interrupted when Wolf is unexpectedly sentenced to five years in prison instead of the several months that he expected. This throws a wrench — though not as big as you might expect — into everybody else’s lives. Wolf has the good fortune to be serving his time locally in a cushy jail that seems to offer unlimited visitation. I believe this is the same place Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) served his sentence on ‘The Good Wife.’ I suspect he will be behind bars for about the same length of time, since keeping the most appealing character out of the action seems like a bad idea for a series. The family ostensibly makes their money through their ownership of a small store that sells stolen goods. Each of the kids are working their own scams, though I would argue that only one crosses the line from clever to criminal.
Elliot looks like he is having the time of his life playing a character who is the exact opposite of Harm (David James Elliot) from ‘Jag.’ But it is Madsen who carries the show as Cheryl, the spunky yet world weary woman who is realizing that she craves normalcy. Far less interesting are their daughters: silly, aspiring model Heather (Leven Rambin) and brainy cinemaphile Hope (Vanessa Marano), in part because they are played by two actresses who irritate the hell out of a lot of television viewers, including me. Rambin is fresh off of playing Sloane, Mark’s (Eric Dane) long-lost pregnant teenage daughter, on ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ She plays Heather in the exact same overbearing, mannered, way that she did Sloane. Heather also falls prey to a common television syndrome: characters constantly refer to her great beauty, but she is no more attractive than the rest of the cast. Hope is played by Marano who provoked a visceral loathing as Luke’s (Scott Patterson) long lost daughter on ‘Gilmore Girls‘. Here, she does her best impression of Darlene (Sara Gilbert) from ‘Roseanne‘ as she uses her superior intellect to avoid attending school while tossing out deadpan sarcastic remarks. She is not terrible but she seems like an actress reciting lines rather than a character.
Watch an interview with Virginia Madsen:
Far more interesting is Patrick Fleuger in a double role as identical twins Logan: the good twin who just finished law school, and Cal: the idiotic trouble maker. Logan is Cheryl’s pride and joy, the one family member who has always stayed on the straight and narrow — well, except for one hilarious adolescent misdeed revealed in flashbacks. Cal is the only character who actually commits a crime in the pilot, and is clearly Wolf’s boy. Fleuger does a fantastic job of carving out two distinct, believable characters aided in large part by Cal’s Sawyer (Josh Holloway) from ‘Lost‘ wig. There is next to no interaction between the twins in the pilot, so it is unclear what the purpose of making them twins is or if the production has mastered the double role camera tricks. Because I have watched television before, I predict that the brothers will need to pretend to be each other at key moments or will be mistaken for each other. It’s a safe bet that newly minted lawyer Logan will figure out a way to free his father, undoubtedly by using his scam skills productively in the courtroom.
After spending the bulk of the episode enjoying the Wests mad conning skills that enable them to get the upper hand of nearly every situation, it comes as something as a letdown when Cheryl decides at the end of the episode that the family needs to go straight, and magically manages to get them all legit jobs. This comes across as an abrupt change in the premise of the show, as well as a violation of the rule every aspiring television writer learns about not spending more than the first act of a pilot on set up. I was looking forward to watching a series about a family of fun loving small scale criminals, not about a family attempting to go straight. I realize that it sets up a great deal of conflict within the family, with Cheryl battling her children’s desire to resume their old way of life and constant temptations, but if a show is going to be called ‘Scoundrels,’ I would like it to be a little more dirty and rotten.