I have to admit upfront that I’m not always a rational critic when it comes to Virginia Madsen. I think the first project I saw her in was the 1980s film “Electric Dreams,” and I’ve been a fan of her work ever since. But admiring Madsen can also be a frustrating experience, since she is often much better than the projects she has picked to appear in.
Thankfully, “Scoundrels” is a much better show than you might suspect from the description. Or, for that matter, from watching the first ten minutes of the pilot. Once the show kicks into gear, it’s an offbeat crime comedic-drama that is already one of my favorite shows of the summer.
Madsen plays Cheryl West, a woman who is having a very bad week. Her morning romp in bed with husband Wolf (David James Elliot) is interrupted when the police raid the family home. And it quickly becomes apparent that this is a frequent occurence for the West family.
It turns out the Wests are a small-time crime family. They make a living robbing delivery trucks and doing home invasions. Their motto is to never use violence or sell drugs. Which might explain why they’re living in a ranch house and driving ten-year-old cars.
Wolf is headed to court for sentencing on robbery charges after he was arrested while trying to hijack a truck filled with lobsters. Son Cal (Patrick John Fluger) is a long-haired goofball of a crook who is now in trouble after being assaulted by a grandmother while robbing a house. On the other hand, younger son Logan (also played by Patrick John Fluger) is getting ready to get his license to practice law.
The Wolf family’s two daughters are also completely different from each other. Heather (Levin Rambin) is a blonde, long-legged wannabe model who admits that the only thing she has going for her are her looks. Sister Hope (Vanessa Marano) is a brunette wanna-be film director who hasn’t been in school for months after she blackmailed the assistant principal into covering for her with the teaching staff.
As you might expect, Wolf’s expected four-month prison sentence becomes a five-year stretch, and that’s just the first of Cheryl’s problems. Cal is hiding from an Asian mob family, Heather is trying to raise money to get some semi-nude modeling photos back from a photographer and then she discovers Hope’s issues at school.
Madsen is the center of most of the latter half of the pilot, and she’s ultimately the best reason to watch. Her character provides a real moral center for the family, and is the creative heart of the show. Madsen plays Cheryl as a bright woman who has been underestimated by her husband and her family. While she doesn’t have all the answers, she does know a lot about what she doesn’t want. She sells off the family business and announces that they are “going straight.” An idea which I suspect will sound much better in theory than in day-to-day practice.
“Scoundrels” isn’t a perfect show. The subplot with a grandfather (John Lawlor) battling Alzheimer’s just isn’t funny. Some of the plot points are pretty predictable and it would have been nice to have cast the blond Rambin as the smart one and the brunette Marano as the sexy one (they are certainly both capable of handling the change). And at least in the pilot, Carlos Bernard is wasted as the local police sergeant gunning to shut down the West family business.
But the strengths of the show won me over. While I’m not willing yet to say that I’ll still be watching by episode eight, the pilot is strong enough to keep me coming back for a few weeks. I like the offbeat tone of the show and the acting is consistently impressive.
I’m also interested to see what happens when Jason Priestly shows up in later episodes as a love interest for Heather. He plays a washed-up 80s actor who has been hosting reality TV shows. Which is a potentially entertaining premise, given his real-life acting career.
In the end, “Scoundrels” might not be the best show of the summer. But it’s the TV equivalent of a day at the beach. Fun, sometimes sexy and often difficult to describe the next day.
“Scoundrels” premieres on ABC on Sunday, June 20th, 2010.