How "The Company You Keep" maps the anatomy of a dangerous, network-friendly sexual thrill

Let's give it up for a network drama that's finally figured out how to heat up a scene with a perfect good bad duo

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 27, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Catherine Haena Kim and Milo Ventimiglia in "The Company You Keep" (ABC/Eric McCandless)
Catherine Haena Kim and Milo Ventimiglia in "The Company You Keep" (ABC/Eric McCandless)

"Relationships. What a racket."

"A shell game to conceal who you really are."

"It's exhausting, isn't it? Lying to each other all the time."

"Not just lying to each other – lying to ourselves, really."

This is the way "The Company You Keep" sets up Charlie Nicoletti (Milo Ventimiglia) and Emma Hill (Catherine Haena Kim), as they sit at a chic hotel bar trying to forget their respective terrible days. Charlie's fiancée robbed him blind and vanished; he plans to lick his wounds in the honeymoon suite. Emma is polished and exhausted and just discovered her lover is cheating. All she wants is to be left alone with a dirty martini, which makes her a magnet for a random married sleazeball.

She quickly wields her talent for sizing up men like a scythe, cutting him off at the knees, or maybe a few inches higher, before he can further ruin her solace. But then there's Charlie, who pipes up for a moment – not to try out a line, but to empathize. She narrows her eyes at him, reading only pain. His heart has been shattered too.

The Company You KeepCatherine Haena Kim and Milo Ventimiglia in "The Company You Keep" (ABC/Eric McCandless)

Only then do we witness this exchange, understanding that it's really a negotiation. Foreplay. 

What strikes a person about this opener and everything that comes afterward is how evenly matched these romantic leads are written. Since love is a lie, then maybe the safest thing they can do is be openly dishonest.  By the time they allow one bubble of truth to break the surface of their reverie – he admits he's a criminal, she tells him she's CIA – they're too far gone. 

Ventimiglia, fresh off "This Is Us," is the name meant to close the sale on "The Company You Keep." Kim may be lesser known to network audiences, but it's her energy that makes the first two episodes of the ABC drama sizzle. Charlie and Emma's push and pull is about the danger of desiring too much while expecting the worst, and he wants more than she's telling herself she's ready to give.  

He may be the match, but she's the striker. One without the other is simply a splinter and cardboard.

Someone once said that the key to making a fictional couple click is in finding one person everyone wants to be and matching them with someone everyone wants to do. "The Company You Keep" makes me appreciate how tough that is to pull off, because it's tough to say who's who. He may be the match, but she's the striker. One without the other is simply a splinter and cardboard. Ventimiglia and Kim emit the type of screen heat that flushes the cheeks, capable of powering a show through whatever rocky plot shoals it might catch on as it finds its way, and the scripts have a few clunks, as most new shows do.

None of it has to do with any lopsided effort devoted toward inflating Charlie's suaveness on the part of the show's executive producers Julia Cohen and Phill Klemmer. Ventimiglia is natural as a shaggy fox who cleans up well and maybe realizes Kim's Emma is too good for him.

Elegant Emma does too, and Kim plays that insinuation in a way that makes us secure that she has the upper hand. She's the friend who works too hard and deserves better, a vicarious designation we can place on her since, given the demands of her job, she has no apparent platonic relationships besides ones she works with. (Even her family doesn't know what she does.) Though she may be tossing care the wind, she's very much in control. 

The Company You KeepMilo Ventimiglia in "The Company You Keep" (ABC/Scott Everett White)

Last week ABC aired Ellen Pompeo's final episode as a "Grey's Anatomy" series regular after 19 seasons of playing Dr. Meredith Grey, although she'll still appear in future episodes.  Careerwise, Meredith leaves Seattle on a high note, as Grey Sloan's Chief of Surgery, a long way from the unsure intern from 2008.

But it's the how of our meet-cute with Meredith and her great love Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) that's germane here. Our first glimpse of Meredith shows her reassembling herself after a drunken one-night stand with a stranger passed out on her floor: Derek. Before we see his face, we drink in his bare (yet shapely!) ass, which makes it all the more awkward when Meredith shows up for the first day of her internship to realize that Derek is her superior.

They get over that, but it set an uneasy standard for romantic fantasy in terms of their power differential.  Early "Grey's" coincides with the "Desperate Housewives" era, a campy primetime frappé in which Eva Longoria's bored supermodel gets her kicks by seducing the teenage help. These were two of ABC's primetime tentpoles in the aughts, but "Grey's" advanced the chemistry code of two characters that belonged together but, according to many rules, shouldn't have been.

Charlie and Emma are a good bad match too, but it's somehow more equitable. Charlie's a good guy from a kind-hearted family that isn't entirely decent, from the law-abiding definition of the word. Charlie grifts with his parents Fran (Polly Draper) and Leo (William Fichtner), and his hardened sister Birdie (Sarah Wayne Callies).  

Emma's family styles itself to be the Asian American Kennedys, with her well-connected parents Joseph (James Saito) and Grace (Freda Foh Shen) driven to win their son David (Tim Chiou) a congressional seat. A person could impale themselves on their uprightness, the commanding Grace hopes.

The Company You KeepFreda Foh and James Saito in "The Company You Keep" (ABC)

Charlie and Emma are a product of another age that's somehow both looser and more prudish. That could refer to the present or a quarter century ago. "The Company You Keep" is adapted from a Korean format, but moves with the sultriness of Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight."

That 1998 classic set the bar for steamy understatement by pairing Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney, and its erotic setup is nearly identical to the one that ensnares Charlie and Emma: Two people meet at a hotel bar and while sharing a glass of bourbon, devise a way to temporarily halt their inexorable plunge toward disaster.

"What would it be like if we met, if we could take a time out?" Clooney's Jack Foley haltingly proposes to Lopez's Karen Sisco. They do, and it's gorgeous, aphrodisiac and so, so devastating. They know how this ends, and so do we.

In The Atlantic, culture critic Sophie Gilbert mounts a robust defense for rekindling the classic love scene as opposed to what we overwhelmingly have now in movies and TV, which is either its utter negation or an emphasis on showing flesh instead inviting viewers to fantasize. Intimacy that's thoughtfully depicted on film reminds us that we're alive, Gilbert posits. "Without filmed explorations of romantic love and erotic desire, modern sex becomes largely defined by porn, which is as alien to real human experience as the 'Mission: Impossible — Fallout' London-rooftop scene is to my daily commute," she writes. 

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"The Company You Keep" premiere makes her point by spinning up Charlie and Emma's bartop chat to a hotel room encounter that launches at the door with a ravenous make-out session, only to have Charlie stop it cold asking Emma if she's hungry. "I'm starving," Emma says, which isn't quite a double entendre.

We all deserve a good time, and for however long this show lasts.

They order a messy burger and pass out, wake up in the morning, and after an awkward, sober exchange, get drunk again on each other. In the daylight, and all day. But here's the thing: the most intimate, tight shots are devoted to slow, deep kissing. These erotic-yet-PG-rated slices are crushed between conversations about the secret to the perfect negroni, considerations of whether to steal slippers, a swim, a shared bubble bath and more eating – pasta this time.

Thirty-six hours of delicious carnality that is completely inbounds of FCC regulations makes a viewer realize what's been missing: a tryst that's less about showcasing Charlie's masculinity than it is dedicated to satisfying Emma. Watching her fall into Charlie's arms, and into the bed of his hotel suite . . .  and its standalone tub . . . and its private pool . . . it all hits like a mini vacation.

The Company You KeepCatherine Haena Kim in "The Company You Keep" (ABC/Scott Everett White)

In the second episode, they fit into each other's lives where and when they can, which is a lot less glamorous than their hotel paradise. They're still hungry, only now they're getting it on in the back seat of Charlie's van, which is both innocent and for Emma, a little risky. Good for her for getting hers.

From here comes the real test of Ventimiglia and Kim's chemistry – specifically its stamina, and how long of a wick the audience will give their flame until the writing related to short and long cons firms up, kicking the plot engine into second gear.

Romantic comedies are peaking in popularity right now, so why not a sexy drama with a side of capers? We all deserve a good time, and for however long this show lasts, we can savor these two giving it to us and each other, while leaving plenty to the imagination.

"The Company You Keep" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on ABC and then streams on Hulu.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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