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After six seasons, Milo Ventimiglia — a star who began his career as Stars Hollow’s resident hellion on “Gilmore Girls” — is freed up from playing the benevolent patriarch on “This Is Us.” And, at least in theory, his new series brings together the two halves of his TV career. On ABC’s “The Company You Keep,” based on the Korean series “My Fellow Citizens,” Ventimiglia plays a con artist, but one who’s utterly committed to his parents (William Fichtner and Polly Draper) and adult sister (Sarah Wayne Callies). The conflict between obligations to loved ones and the desire to get out of the game creates tension and interest in the show’s first two episodes, as does genuine chemistry with co-star Catherine Haena Kim.
It’s less a critique than a simple description of the network-drama form to note that the relationship between the two leads is a tidy double game. Meeting by chance, Ventimiglia’s Charlie and Kim’s Emma share a night of intimacy during which they conceal their true identities: He’s a professional liar, and in a sense, so is she. Emma is an undercover CIA operative, currently assigned to root out the criminal mastermind who owns Charlie’s family’s debts and is making them miserable. Compellingly, she has insecurities that overlay Charlie’s own: He’s responsible for financially supporting his parents, while she feels like the black sheep of a political dynasty that sees itself as the Korean answer to the Kennedys.
With this premise established, there’s room to explore the relationship, and outside it. Some of the writing of Emma’s and Charlie’s dialogue leans painfully hard on the fact that they’re at once intrigued by one another and lying through their teeth, as when she admits, “With you, there is no hiding. … Sometimes it feels like you can see through me.” There’s dramatic irony, and then there’s elbowing the audience in the ribs so hard you may leave a bruise. Still, the performers sell the mutual attraction and the tricky sense of knowing one is understood beyond one’s lies and elisions; Fichtner and Draper are in fine form, as is Callies.
This trio’s work with Ventimiglia anchors the sprightlier half of “The Company You Keep.” Charlie and his folks don’t run cons together simply as a way to leverage their talents to make money — they are in it, in part, for love of the game. The second episode, in which Fichtner’s Leo takes on the character of a ludicrous society photographer to gain access to the home of a wealthy couple, has some of the high-kicking brio of the late, lamented ABC spy drama “Alias,” albeit obviously executed on a less ambitious scale. Even so, that “The Company You Keep” treats its characters as intelligent — capable not merely of pulling off a con but of designing one that uses their ingenuity and their humor — feels like a breath of fresh air.
And it’s a color that looks good on Ventimiglia, for whom a certain husky-voiced stoicism can be a crutch as much as it is a defining trait. He certainly seems to be having fun, which, as a performer, he’s earned after what was likely a creatively rewarding but emotionally wrenching journey through family tragedy “This Is Us.” It also represents something new for his audience members, who have little recent experience of a Ventimiglia who’s uncomplicatedly breezy or sexy outside the context of a very complicated marriage. Here, the knots in Charlie’s stories are the stuff of pulp novels or — just as good — lightly pleasurable serial TV.
‘The Company You Keep’ premieres on Sunday, February 19, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.
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