Everything on television is a lie; everything on reality television, an even bigger one. Which is why Bravo’s second-ever scripted series, Imposters—whose second season careens into its fizzy final stretch tonight with the return of intermittent guest star Uma Thurman—is such a slyly subversive gem. Television is a con, it tells you. Love is a con. Relationships and life stories and the core personalities of everyone you meet, all cons. The very stuff of the programming that keeps us on the airwaves, that keeps the airwaves running at all? One GIANT con.
But let’s back up. First, the series’ premise: Co-created by rom-com giant Adam Brooks and Paul Adelstein (of Bravo’s first-ever scripted series, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), Imposters stars Inbar Lavi as marry-’em-and-disappear con-woman Maddie Jonson (“No-H-in-Jonson”), and follows not only her and her co-cons Max and Sally (Brian Benben and Katherine LaNasa) as they pick up Maddie’s newest mark(s), but also three of her duped exes—christened “The Bumblers” and played with hilarious humanity by Rob Heaps, Parker Young, and Marianne Rendón—as they embark on a mission to regain their dignity after being taken for naïve rubes, picking up more than a few con tricks of their own along the way.
That, at least, was the premise of the series’ first season. The Bumblers’ arc takes the shape of the classic Hero’s Journey, with confronting Maddie as their abyssal moment of Revelation, while Maddie’s took the shape of an ouroboros, her con—as Hollywood cons tend to do—eating its own tail halfway through the season’s ten-episode run. In the end, the Bumblers achieve atonement and are (or should be) able to return to their former lives, while Maddie is (or should be) able to move on to her next lie.
But while both of these arcs have a sort of predictability built into them, the fact that every player within each of them is—or becomes—a con artist makes every backstory reveal, every character development, every emotionally-charged confrontation impossible to trust—and has made the second season, just now entering the chaos zone, utterly magnetic. The more the characters ricochet off one another, the more tenuous the audience’s hold on any kind of core narrative truth. Every interaction could be a lie, or not. Every reveal could be a fakeout, or not. The Bumblers’ acceptance into the con-artist fold could be earned, or not. Maddie’s quiet exeunt might take, or not. You, in the audience, will watch dozens of hours of these characters growing and changing and accomplishing something, and yet you will come out the other side uncertain that any of it was real.
Now, not that this will blow anyone’s minds, but that, in a nutshell, is exactly what television is. Dozens of hours of visual lies whose ties to reality are never entirely clear, and whose significance is even less so. Sure, the stories matter, be it on scripted or reality television—critics wouldn’t spend hours writing if we didn’t believe in rigorous intellectual, emotional, and psychological engagement with the ones captured on film and beamed serially into our eyeballs—but that doesn’t change the fact that they are the results of long cons built out of a bunch of lies. Makeup, costumes, lighting, green screens, filters, SFX, editing, post, the infinite stream of empty coffee cups, whatever gaffes are—all of it, tools of the television con.
Which, to come back to my original argument, is what makes the very Bravo-ness of Imposters so bitingly sweet. Because, while plenty of con shows have been made before—White Collar, Good Behavior, The Catch, Sneaky Pete, It Takes a Thief—it is Imposters that has the most to reveal about the lies at the heart of television as an art form. And where better to make that reveal than on the reality-centric Bravo, whose only other scripted offering to date is a show that feels like any one of the network’s Real Housewives could pop onto for a long guest arc? A network whose entire scripted identity is still being formed? Add Imposters to USA, and you just get one more reminder that characters [are] welcome. Add it to an alphabet network, it maybe lasts a single summer season. Add it to Netflix—well, it will likely gain an audience (it’s how most people who either don’t watch or don’t have cable are finding it already), but it won’t have any meta commentary to add to the television conversation. But add it to Bravo? Whose entire storytelling brand (reality) is the biggest, most successful television lie of all?
I don’t want to say it’s genius, but every disorienting step Imposters takes on this baby scripted slate is definitely fascinating. So, bravo, Bravo. You and Maddie and the loving, loved Bumblers have my undivided attention.
Imposters airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.