While laid up with a dodgy leg a couple of weeks ago I found myself strangely compelled to catch up with the last couple of series of Hustle that I missed, in the same way that when you’ve got a broken tooth throbbing in your gum you feel strangely compelled to poke your tongue at it.
Somehow in the eighteen months or so since I last watched it I forgot how much more-or-less everything in Hustle gets on my pecs. All of the individual missteps it makes could be forgiven, but they come together to create something fundamentally disagreeable. In the rather spiffing recent Screenwipe special on writing for television, Hustle’s creator Tony Jordan said that when writing the scripts for the series he’d start with a premise but have no idea how it would end. Instead, he’d just follow the story until something suggested itself.
Frankly, this explains a lot.
Too often, Hustle plays – I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry – a con game, talking fast to try and rush you past a plot point or story conclusion that seems to superficially make sense but falls apart if subjected to the slightest scrutiny. It’s also painfully formulaic – every week, about two thirds of the way through it seems that everything’s gone wrong for the team but by the end it’s revealed that the trap they were seemingly caught in was just part of a wider con and, aha, actually they were in control the whole time. House gets away with repeating the same basic episode structure over and over again largely because its antihero central character is unusual, engaging and well-written. Hustle doesn’t because its antihero central characters are either cataclysmically dull or brain-detonatingly irritating. Even the more likable personalities (that’d be Ash, a combination of the Faceman out of the A-Team and a bulldog licking a nettle) are forced to transport levels of weapons-grade smugness far in excess of government-mandated safety guidelines. It desperately, desperately wants to be Ocean’s Eleven but succeeds only in being Ocean’s Twelve. Damningly, the characters look to be having a far better time than the audience ever will.
Top tip! If you’re writing a series about a group of con artists, whatever you do don’t rip off The Sting which is, y’know. Only the most famous movie about con artists ever made. And really, really, don’t do it twice. And when you’re having one character explain the con to another, really really really don’t have them say “you know, like The Sting.” Because that’s not funny, it’s not clever, it makes no sense. If you acknowledge that The Sting exists in your setting, then apparently your con artists are banking their life, wealth and liberty on the fact that their mark and anybody he happens to talk to haven’t ever seen a film that won SEVEN FLIPPIN’ OSCARS. More than that, it’s probably not a great idea to remind your viewers that they’ve seen this story done before with better writing, better acting, better directing, better costumes and better music. In The Sting, for instance. And to anyone who considers watching that episode like I did, thinking to yourself all the way through “actually, this is really clever, they’re following the plot of The Sting almost line-for-line in order to spring a massive unexpected twist at the end that works because I think I’m familiar with the story” – don’t bother. Because they’ve followed the plot of The Sting almost line-for-line in order to spring a massive unexpected twist that’s exactly the same as the end of The Sting.
Top tip! If you’re writing an episode that focuses on poker and you don’t know anything about poker, why not try not writing an episode about poker? Otherwise, you just end up in a situation where Evil Max Beesley flat calls a pre-flop raise heads-up with pocket kings (perfectly reasonable in itself, of course), calls again after the board comes down ace-high and he’s facing a pot-sized bet (um…), calls another big bet after a blank on fourth street (eh?), then flukes into one of his – count ‘em – TWO outs, catching trips on the river to beat the raiser’s top two-pair. Which would be bad enough, but then he’s got the nerve to smirk “Call me sometime and I’ll teach you how to play poker!” as he scoops a pot that he’d have lost 23 times out of 24 after the call on the turn.
Top tip! If you’re a team of high-class con artists who repeatedly bang on about how you only ever take money from people who deserve it, why not try not constantly conning the poor Scouse sap who runs the bar you always meet at? Not only does this make you look like a bunch of complete hypocrites and remove any last lingering traces of sympathy I might have had for you, but it’s also spectacularly unwise to systematically antagonise someone who’s seen and heard the planning of about 75% of every criminal act you’ve ever committed, you enormous idiots.
Wow. 800 words on the hatefulness of Hustle and I haven’t even had to mention Marc Warren and his stupid squinty smirky Mockney hamster fizzog.
Next week in Blue Man’s Timely Telly Reviews Of Large, Slow Moving Targets we’ll be covering Day 6 of 24 in a feature entitled I Feel Like I’m Taking Crazy Pills or: I Know What Jack Bauer’s Dad Looks Like And You, Sir, Are Not Jack Bauer’s Dad.