Robert McKee’s “Works/Doesn’t Work” Review


Created by Paul Adelstein & Adam Brooks

It Works. (Spoiler Alert!)

I’ve just finished IMPOSTERS (2017-2018), Bravo’s two-season crimedy. The series works. It satirizes con artists and their victims, hooking, holding and building to a delightful climax. So with an eye to our upcoming Character Webinar Series, let’s use it as a case study in how to design a unified cast along a system of sameness, contrasts and contradictions, such that whenever one character meets another, they belong in the same story, but their differences clearly define each other.

Two Crosscut Storylines

One storyline takes the ingenious con artist Maddie Jonson as its protagonist. She induces her wealthy targets, both male and female, to fall head over heels in love with her by becoming their ideal woman. Then immediately after the wedding, Maddie steals her victim’s riches and vanishes.

Yet as brilliant as she is at the long con, Maddie can’t get out from under the heel of her boss. Deep in the background, a deadly puppet master known as “The Doctor” runs teams of criminals who prey on the rich. The problem is that once someone goes to work for this mad man, they are his forever. Should they try to cut their strings, he sends assassins. So Maddie’s plot traces her schemes to elude the maniacal Doctor and escape the game.

Maddie’s plot crosscuts with a second storyline that features Maddie’s most recent marks—Ezra Bloom, Richard Evans, Julia Langmore. Prior to the opening episodes, Maddie married each of them and then ripped them off. When the three victims meet, they partner up, determined to track Maddie down and get their money back. Ezra, Richard and Julia, however, are still secretly in love with her, or rather with the fascinating imposter she became to seduce them with her ingenious performances as Ava, Alice and CeCe respectively.


Four Hidden Stories

But what makes this series work is not the comic chase, but the fascinating conflicts hidden in its four rather unstable protagonists. As the title suggests, each character is an imposter, so each struggles with inner doubts and questions of identity: Who am I? Am I fake or real? Where do I find my true self? Inside or outside? Do I find it within myself or in a relationship with someone else? As the lyrics of Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings sang, “I would be nothing without you.” So if I identify with a relationship and lose that person, who would I be? This is series comedy with a bite.

The Moral Question

When Maddie’s victims discover that their phony wives betrayed them, they naturally assume that that makes them the good guys. But as the first season reveals, Richard, a former star quarterback, once took a bribe from gamblers to throw a championship game; Julia, a wannabe artist from a wealthy family, cheated her parents out of a ton of money; the Bloom family business owes its success to a patent that Ezra’s father stole from his uncle. Ezra knows this but goes along with the crime to get along with his family.

Therefore, to find their true identities, each protagonist has to face a moral question. Before they can answer “Who am I?”, they have to first discover “Am I a good person or bad?” The core value of Morality/Immorality pushes and pulls at their consciences throughout the series.

Because each character has a criminal streak, they discover that they can raise the money they need to pursue Maddie by turning into con artists themselves and become amazingly skilled at the short game. However, once the trio recognizes that their guilty pasts and their current crimes make them morally suspect, they devise a code of ethical conduct to guide their enterprise and co-sign it. But then one by one betray the code.

Their moral/immoral inner contradiction unites all four around a core dimension. At heart, they are the same. What defines them is the unique traits that shape how they go about getting what they want.


Characterization by Contrast

Over the two seasons, the character designs of Maddie, Ezra, Julia and Richard define each other with a variety of contrasts. For example, in terms of sophistication versus naivete, Maddie seems more worldly, but Julia is actually more self-aware. In terms of maturity versus immaturity, the boyish Ezra grows up, but Richard stays a kid.

As they scam their way across from state to state, they further define each other along two other key dimensions: cool versus impulsive and loyal versus disloyal. The three swing back and forth between their passion for Maddie and their commitment to each other. Under pressure, Maddie is most cool but least loyal; Richard is most loyal but least cool. Julia, Ezra and Richard panic now and then, but Maddie never. When the trio puts loyalty/disloyalty to the final test, they ultimately stick together. At the end of the telling, the self-obsessed Maddie is on her own.

We could also note their contrasts of dress and vocabulary, IQs and EQs, how much compassion they feel for one another versus their families and the people around them.


Supporting Cast Design

Because IMPOSTERS ridicules wrongdoing, it ignores the Crime Genre’s conventional core value of Justice/Injustice, and instead, as we’ve seen, it concentrates on the search for identity in the characters moral natures. So to dramatize the tug-of-war within the four lead characters, virtually every supporting role pulls them toward immorality.

The supporting cast is a casting director’s holiday of charming criminals, not so innocent victims, not so ethical FBI agents, sordid relatives and fascinating assassins. The killer played by Uma Thurman has more depth than a nuclear sub. Only one character, a psychotherapist, tries to draw Maddie toward the light but fails.

By the series finale, Julia, Richard and Maddie are finally at home within themselves, but Ezra still looks for his identity out there in a dream of romance.

From cruel experience, I can tell you that light comedy is the hardest damn stuff to write, direct and act. The series creators, Paul Adelstein and Adam Brooks, plus the talents of their writers room, make it look easy. I will miss the gags and timings, voices and wide ranging talents of the lead imposters: Inbar Lavi, Rob Heaps, Marianne Rendon and Parker Young.

I watched IMPOSTERS on Netflix. So if you’re taking the Character Webinar Series in March, give it a look with your laptop open and map out, scene by scene, how each character sets off and defines the others.

Robert McKee's CHARACTER Webinar Series

Robert McKee returns online with three brand-new webinars teaching the principles you need to craft an unforgettable cast of characters and their stories.