Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.
Scams! They’re a pastime as beloved as mine salting, sending money transfers to Nigerian princes and selling the Brooklyn Bridge to hapless immigrants. (Fun fact, the Wikipedia page for George C. Parker, the guy who actually “sold” the Brooklyn Bridge, describes him as a “con man and prophet.” Something to think about!) A few of my all-time favorite pop-culture scams include Sweet Dee’s “$CAMMIN” license plate from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and the entire concept of sitcom reboots. A fairly new entry in the field is HBO Max’s Generation Hustle, a 10-part anthology doc series about — you guessed it — scammers and the people who fall for them.
Because con artistry is an innately human talent not bound by border or creed, Generation Hustle profiles an international cadre of liars, thieves, or otherwise disordered individuals (indeed, hustlers) who prey on others for money, kicks, compulsion or clout. There are five different filmmakers across the 10 episodes, so quality varies, and honestly, your preferred episodes will probably come down to what kind of scams you like best. Personally? I’m an Anna Delvey (real name: Anna Sorokin) fan. She was the “German” “socialite” who scammed luxury hotel stays and trips from trusting and/or credulous and/or starfucky art-scene glommers. Her court looks are, I think we can all agree, iconic. Unfortunately, Anna was legally unable to appear in her episode because, per a title card, she’s sold her life rights to an upcoming Shonda Rhimes Netflix biopic.
I’m definitely the sort of individual who can find great, campy fun in the work of a criminal or two, as long as there’s (relatively) little devastation left in their wake. Generation Hustle doesn’t follow cult scams, sex-cult scams, or Black Widow-style murder scams — it’s mostly “money grifts” and “dream-crushing” grifts. Generation Hustle holds a lot of the same appeal as reality TV, broadly: Very strange people will happily go on camera and demonstrate their strangeness. The final episode profiles “scam rapper” Teejayx6 who, though clearly not as clever as he thinks he is, does sport one of the most intense cases of oddly lifeless shark eyes I’ve ever seen. One of the funniest guests was an angular, no-nonsense DJ who said she clocked Delvey for a con artist fairly quickly, and then kind of tuned out as Anna ran off to work her magic on, well, dumber people than her.
It’s easy to relate to someone who early and easily escaped the clutches of a scammer, because I’d never get taken in, right? The fact is, I get taken in all the time, like every day, in ways I’m sure I don’t even realize. There’s a thing called “advertising,” and I’m just as susceptible to it as anyone else encumbered with a human brain. If you’ve ever picked a restaurant based on highway billboards, have fond memories of the Sears Wish Book, can easily recall and enjoy any number of commercial jingles, had a fictional mascot appear in your dreams, then hey, guess what! You’ve been conned by advertising, too. (The only exception to this, of course, are the advertisers in the Nashville Scene. Those are all placed by good, sexy, cool local businesses and organizations.)
It’s all just taking advantage of human psychology at the end of the day, right? That’s why I say “encumbered” by the brain — as smart as it is, it’s also very, very dumb. But let us not meander on heuristics and instead move, obviously, to The Paradise, a 2012 BBC Studios/Masterpiece adaptation of Émile Zola's 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames, all about the glories and wonders of the department store. (Not to be confused with the Jeremy Piven-starring Mr. Selfridge, that other Masterpiece show about 19th-century department store duh-rama.) I have a soft spot for second- and third-tier stories of plucky young heroines from days of yore who leave tiny villages for the bustle of employment. Call the Midwife, Lark Rise to Candleford-kinda stuff, you know?
Charming and lovely Denise (Joanna Vanderham) is orphaned and ambitious, but unfortunately quite female. Her boss and love interest Mr. Moray (Emun Elliott), while not physically repulsive, has your standard mid-19th-century sexism going on, both as a man of his time and place and as a businessman. (He also has facial hair that gives a strong “Tarnation!” vibe.) The good news is, his reflexive and natural sexism (and the original French title) means boffo mid-Victorian geegaw sales, and honestly? There’s lots of fun to be had in this show with the fabrics and textiles, especially exhibited in the costumes of Miss Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy), daughter of the store’s owner and fiancé of Moray. There are color combos not out of place during sorority rush weeks, screaming pinks and lime greens presented entirely straight-faced, and lace frillies I haven’t seen since I last saw a toddler in an Easter dress. What can I say, my simple brain likes the colors. Really, I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff.