I first came across Imposters, the Bravo series that’s playing five nights out of seven on Israeli television, scrolling through Netflix this past March. The picture showed a woman on a bed, the label said dark comedy, the slug described a con artist marrying men and stealing their money. Sex, cruelty, the suggestion of the absurd: It looked designed—overdesigned—to allure. But after a minute I thought, “Why Not?” and tried the first episode.
I expected to stay 20 minutes and move onto something new. I stayed for 10 episodes and, when the next season premiered a few weeks later, stayed for 10 more. Imposters, for me, was an inversion of its premise: I thought I was getting scammed, and I found something real.
Imposters is the vehicle and the first major American role for Israeli actress Inbar Lavi—she’s the reason it’s a staple of Israeli TV. It was created by a veteran film writer, Adam Brooks, and a veteran character actor turned writer, Paul Adelstein. Brooks—whose credits include French Kiss, Wimbledon, and Definitely, Maybe—has made a career writing about people struggling to access their full selves. His working theory is that our character, its essence, is waiting there for us: Finding it is a question of getting the right nudges, from the right people, and following through. Adelstein plays zany parts in darkly comic films with joyful abandon. His first role was in The Grifters, and it’s tempting to draw a direct line between that experience and this series, because Imposters’ conceit is to cross The Grifters with French Kiss.
Inbar Lavi’s Maddie is a con artist whose scam is to seduce people, marry them, set up a joint checking account, empty it, and disappear into the middle distance. Maddie’s a natural—she knows that the trick to making someone fall in love with you is to become their solution, which means they love not you but the way you make them feel. But over time, damage accrues. Three of her devastated exes, Ezra (Rob Heaps), Richie (Parker Young), and Jules (Marianne Rendón), plus an FBI agent, Patrick (Stephen Bishop) set out on her trail. The four pursuers catch up to the pursued and get drawn into the cons she’s trying to play. As they help her play them, the con artists struggle toward a recognition of who they are and who they want to be.
Maddie is the show’s catalyst, but the driver of its arc is Ezra: 20-something, from a good Jewish Indianapolis family, smart, a dreamer, completely untested, his eyes fixed somewhere on the horizon. To seduce him, Maddie plays Ava, sexy and ethereal and French, and she so completely uplifts his comfortable life that, when she leaves, he uproots himself to find her.
So far as I know, Ezra is an anomaly: a male lead in a mainstream American TV series who’s recognizably Jewish, but whose Jewishness the series feels no pressure to accent. Certainly, it’s easy to suspect that Paul Adelstein, who grew up Midwestern and Reform Jewish, had some input into the character. And certainly, Rob Heaps—a non-Jewish actor who plays Ezra with earnestness and energy; and later, growing perceptiveness and occasional anger—has been open about the importance of Jewish culture to his portrayal.
But that’s about it: Imposters leaves the Jewishness there and lets you come to it on its own terms—clear and confident, obvious and unencumbered. It’s exhilarating, at a time when identity risks becoming synonymous with individuality, to see a series accept the inherited particularities of a character without making him the sum of those particularities. It roots him firmly in his past while letting him get about the business of figuring out how to live.
What does this look like—the business of living, in a world of cons? It looks like pieces of America: Scottsdale, Burlington, Seattle, New York; bus stops, gas stations, bland motel rooms, food courts; country clubs, Greyhounds, gun ranges, childhood homes. It looks like a gallery of secondary players: con artists gone to seed; old high-school friends nursing resentments and longings; lonely marks with eccentric hobbies pining for the right person. And it looks like five fully realized protagonists: incommensurable in their finely worked backgrounds and personalities; equal in their struggle to come to terms with their pasts and find their own ways.
Besides Ezra, there’s Richie, a high-school football star from an over-mortgaged tract house in Scottsdale, who wants to get out of his lower-middling life and mount a run for state Senate. He thought “Alice”—Maddie, playing blonde, smart, attentive—was his way out, and now he’s refusing to stop believing in his long game as he claws his way back to reality. There’s Jules, an artist from a WASP dynasty, emotionally sensitive and emotionally paralyzed, ground down by a family that can’t distinguish between being domineering and being decisive. She thought “CeCe”—Maddie, playing tough, confident, reliable—was her move, and she’s coping with the loss with intensive therapy that she knows is insufficient. And, later, there’s Patrick, the FBI guy—smart and handsome and just a little too cocksure, a little too shallow, to cope with Maddie, even knowing the game’s a con—suddenly in over his head at the bureau and looking to get above water. A code is what these people are looking for—one they forge out of where they come from, who they are, and where and who they want to be.
In the meantime, Maddie’s coming to terms with the opposite problem. She got into the game for good reasons—to get out of a life she didn’t choose—but it came with costs. If you buy into another person’s code, in this case her boss’s, a sinister control freak called the doctor (Ray Proscia), you end up buying yourself into a prison. This is the show’s real irony, which it’s smart enough not to overstate: The grifter has scammed herself as badly as she ever scammed the marks. Now, altogether, they’ll have to find their way out.
Maddie is the key to this last, biggest con—the person who knows all the players, the reason they stick together, the planner with the skills to plot their way clear. The trait, the essence, that defines Inbar Lavi’s characterization of Maddie as the series progresses is solidity. She seems to get heavier as the stakes get higher; not her physique but her physicality. She buys a gun, and her body squares, then sinks, then settles as she practices pulling the trigger. She reunites with her exes, and her face widens then recedes as she opens herself to their judgments. Finally, there’s a scene where she makes a choice: about the terms on which she’ll be accepted back by the people she’s wronged; about what she’s willing to live with and risk living without.
In this episode and a few others, it looks like the series will come down to Ezra and Maddie: the innocent who’s gotten savvy to the game but who’s still unaware of the stakes; and the long-term player who sinned against him, but, like she says, saved him, too—“You always whine about how you wanted a life of adventure? Well guess who gave it to you? I did. Because you never tried to get it for yourself.” Then, in the final two episodes, the writers shake up the action, and we’re left with what we always had—five people, equal and incommensurable, still looking to find their own paths. But we may not be able to follow them further: A week before the season 2 finale premiered, Bravo announced the show’s cancellation.
It’s worth saying that this cancellation is a loss: of a singular, hard-to-categorize show that breaks out of the highbrow/lowbrow categories of a lot of contemporary TV; that looks like quick viewing but quickly upends those expectations; that draws us in with entertainment, and then, through the specificity of its characterizations, it suggests options for how to live. This elusive genre, accessible art that also goes deep, is part of what we look for in culture, and don’t often find—especially in a world where we have more and more choice about how to live but less and less time to think.
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Matthew Wolfson is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New Republic and elsewhere.