ABC’s “The Company You Keep” is surprisingly good, even though the standard plot points and cliched opening moments had me worried I was watching a dud. The drama starts with Milo Ventimiglia’s Charlie Nicoletti in the middle of a high-stakes deal, completed with the help of his fawning fiancé (Abigail Spencer). It all turns out to be too good to be true, and soon our leading man is broke and heartbroken. But don’t worry—he doesn’t stay sad for long.
Meanwhile, Catherine Haena Kim’s Emma Hill is a CIA agent who discovers that her husband (Michael Bow) is cheating. She breaks it off with him and doesn’t even seem particularly upset. Especially after she begins an off-again-on-again romance with con-man Charlie, in which neither can come even close to revealing who they are or what they do.
In the first two episodes made available for critics, Charlie and Emma hit many of the relationship beats it’d take other shows multiple seasons to get to—they have sex, break up, throw out emotional baggage, and reconcile. They also get mere inches away from revealing their secret identities. But, of course, they do not, and their forbidden cop/criminal romance continues.
If that all sounds like something you’ve seen before, it probably is. But that doesn’t mean “The Company You Keep” can’t provide solid entertainment as it adheres to its genre’s conventions. Part of the reason it works is the chemistry between Ventimiglia and Kim. Their sex scenes pop about as much as possible in a network show. So while their emotional maneuvers are all pretty standard, the heat between them is anything but.
The show also offers an interesting take on crime and punishment. Charlie isn’t just a conman—he comes from a family of cons, all working together. Sister Birdie (Sarah Wayne Callies) is his loving antagonist, the way only siblings can. Mother Fran (Polly Draper) and ailing father Leo (William Fichtner) are supportive parents who want their kids to be free, happy, and safe—even as they run their family crime business.
But the Nicolettis are clearly good people. Yes, they’re a loving family, but they also refrain from physical violence and pick marks who deserve some hard knocks—Fentanyl pushers, Russian oligarchs, and corrupt pastors. Charlie and his family may be primarily motivated by money, but their thievery isn’t hurting communities. Rather, they’re vigilantes of the capitalistic system, a step below thieves with a heart of gold, but certainly much more sympathetic than the rich folks they rob.
So far, “The Company You Keep” doesn’t critique Emma’s CIA role, but it does venture to say the world of the rich and powerful is neither altruistic nor squeaky clean. It recognizes that extreme wealth is always problematic, a sign of greed, nepotism, corruption, or all three.
Emma appears forged from these halls of power—her family’s business is politics. Her dad Joseph (James Saito), was a US Senator and as the action of “The Company You Keep” starts up, her brother David (Tim Chiou) is running for his old seat. Matriarch Grace (Freda Foh Shen) is the hard-working and hard-nosed force behind it all. While Emma’s done her best to avoid the limelight, she’s proud to work for the government.
The parallels and differences between the two families—in race, clout, and economic position—provide an interesting contrast, complicating Hollywood’s typical ideas about who gets power and how. Perhaps the show will push further on the ideas of right and wrong and their respective relationships to the law, delving more into interesting themes that the show has just started to open up.
But even if doesn’t, “The Company You Keep” is an above-average caper show. The con-per-week format is highly enjoyable as we watch the Nicolettis dawn an array of costumes (like “The Americans” but strictly fun) and execute their clever plots.
The show also benefits from some serious baddies in the form of Timothy V. Murphy as Irish mob boss Brendan Maguire and Daphne Finch (Felisha Terrell) as his steely and ruthless right-hand-woman. She’s particularly strong as the femme fatale who manages to be “objectively attractive,” as one character says while projecting pure strength.
Two episodes aren’t a lot to judge on. But “The Company You Keep” has a strong start and the elements of a successful show: stellar chemistry between its leading stars, a set-up ripe for plenty of adventure, downright festive weekly cons, and a beautiful cast that knows how to act.
Two episodes were screened for review. “The Company You Keep” airs weekly on ABC starting February 19 with episodes available to stream on Hulu.