After a slightly shaky start, the final ever series (sob) of the cheeringly escapist con-artist drama, Hustle, appears to be very much back on top form.
Episode 1, by comparison, wasn’t fantastic. It was a fair attempt at a series opener, there were plenty of twists and turns, a typically comic-strip villain, relatively good dialogue and slick editing. It wasn’t bad by any stretch. But we’d seen it all before. The ‘Robin Hood’ speech in particular, shoe-horned into many an episode over the past eight years, felt particularly contrived. You could almost hear the scratches of biro as the boxes of trademark Hustle features were ticked off in production.
The second episode did, admittedly, open with another tried and tested Hustle feature- the classic to-camera piece, but my god was it done well. The first thing we’re shown is the oddly pained looking face of Ash Morgan, the fixer, played fabulously over the years by Robert Glenister. Normal enough, apart from the pained expression. However, and I don’t want to spoil the episode here if anybody hasn’t caught up with it on Iplayer yet, he’s upside down. Suspended from the roof of a warehouse, talking directly to the camera about how, occasionally, as a con artist, you have to do business with people who are “for want of a better word…criminals”. This is Hustle at its very best.
The concept for the con itself is witty and self-referential, with the gang accidentally selling a forgery of a stolen painting back to the very mobster it was stolen from in the first place. It is at this point that the episode departs from the norm, and is all the better for it. Because here, we see gang leader and all round smooth guy ‘Mickey Bricks’, played by the wonderful Adrian Lester... well to be honest we don’t really see him at all- he’s locked in the boot of a car for the majority of it, used as ransom until the team return the painting. As well as giving the team a time scale to work to, a device which has historically produced both the best Hustle episodes, as well as some fantastic Spooks moments (also by Kudos Productions), the lack of Michael Stone meant a very much Ash-centric episode. This is not something we’ve seen before, and it allowed for some excellent character development, as well as some superb dialogue, the very best of which is in the last ten minutes or so.
Not only this, but, and I think for the first time in eight years, we do actually begin to wonder whether Mickey might actually be in some danger. In danger of having parts of him chopped off. We being to wonder that everything might not work out perfectly for the gang as it normally does, that this time it might not all be all right after all. Of course it is, and we’re still happy in a James Bond can never die sort of way when it does, but we’re briefly taken into new territory with the show, and, as far as I’m concerned, anyway, it worked.
Both episodes clearly used the tick box method of including all the usual Hustle devices, but I think the crucial element here is that Episode 2 took them all further. That elusive, tiny little bit further. And it really has made all the difference to a format which was in serious danger of growing tired.
I wholeheartedly look forward to seeing what Kudos Productions have done with the rest of the series, although I will be very, very sad to see Hustle go.