The Company You Keep

4 out of 5

Created by: Julia Cohen

covers season 1

I’m probably misidentifying the source, but from my perspective, a vast majority of popular media where heists or cons play a big part of the plot changed in the wake of Ocean’s 11. Steve Soderbergh’s pretty perfect classic set a template for big team dynamics, and quirky cool and controlled visuals – a certain amount of multi-POV and cross-cutting and pans – and boppy, jazzy music. Not that that was created wholesale for that flick, but it felt codified thereafter, and whenever a team of thieves – such as the family that’s the focus of TV series The Company You Keep – is at a show or movie’s core, that template is applied, inclusive of all the last minute turnabouts that make every impossible seeming stunt’s magic no less impressive for its bravado.

And the showrunners of Company effect this m.o. well, as other followers have done, but it’s also one of the main things keeping this excellent, if slightly plot-overstuffed, series from being that much better: while it looks good, it’s lacking that definitive feel of its own, which ends up potentially masking how much smart character work and thematic linking is accomplished throughout. Because that – more than the cons, which are fun as well – is actually the star factor here, and continually had me impressed along the way, as interactions dodge out of convention and things are brought to life by a really solid set of actors.

We open as one might suspect with such a setup: mid-swindle, with the Nicoletti family (mom, dad, brother, sister, brother’s girlfriend) playing different roles in order to win some goods from some baddie types. These are Robin Hood thieves, of course – else we’d turn against them – and so we can revel in their pulling one over on their marks. Except this latest heist ends up with a major flaw: brother’s girlfriend was swindling them, putting them deep in the hole, and after a bit, also owing the Irish mob, represented by their consultant, Daphne (Felisha Terrell).

Overcoming this gaff, brother – Charlie, played by Milo Ventimiglia – has a night of drinks and surprisingly engaging chat-up and more with Emma Hill (Catherine Haena Kim), which puts a nice pep in his step when the Nicoletti’s end up having to do favors for the Irish mob in order to pay back what they owe. Alas, Emma actually works for the CIA, and happens to be tracking the activity of that same mob…

It’s a quirky, complex little web that’s handled with surprising patience, but also with the exact right amount of stakes – both the Nicolettis and the CIA know what they’re doing, so while happenstance keeps things in the dark for a while, eventually they’ll need to come to a head, and the show handles that very well. But if you’ve noticed that that base premise – essentially Charlie and Emma’s personal lives coming into conflict with their “professional” ones – was already described as complex, when you add full-blown arcs for all the Nicolettis, plus Emma’s family, plus Daphne’s part in the mob into the mix… you can see how it gets a bit unwieldy.

It helps that these storylines are all pretty compelling on their own, and that they all do tie into the main story. It definitely helps that you have William Fichtner, Polly Draper, and Sarah Wayne Callies in these key roles – father, mother, and sister, respectively – with each remaining role similarly well cast, and doing the heavy-lifting dialogue with seeming ease. You believe this is a family; you believe each of their choices; and the writers – and actors – do an excellent job of humanizing nearly everyone, which certainly provides the constant juggling act of who’s-on-whose-side a feeling of importance. And while some of the bits and pieces get shorted, nothing feels forgotten; it’s a really solid set of episodes, once you’ve established all the moving pieces.

With just a slightly less derivative style, The Company You Keep would probably stand head and shoulders above its peers. But it’s perhaps equally notable that it manages to stand out just on the quality of its writing, and acting, and never felt like it was twiddling its thumbs for the sake of faux tensions.