Apologies to Justin Timberlake, but it’s Milo Ventimiglia who’s bringing sexy back — to network television, that is.
In The Company You Keep, his first role since This Is Us ended in May 2022, he plays a career criminal who unknowingly falls for an undercover CIA agent (Catherine Haena Kim), sending them on a professional collision course. Charlie Nicoletti couldn’t be more different from kind-hearted This Is Us patriarch Jack Pearson, but after watching Ventimiglia play up the earnestness for so long, it’s a thrill to see him ditch the period-inspired dad outfits and embrace his status as a contemporary heartthrob.
The Company You Keep wastes no time reminding viewers of Ventimiglia’s sex appeal. The pilot opens with Charlie, dressed in a tight-fitting suit with slicked back hair, in the midst of a con, smooth-talking Irish gangster Brendan Maguire (Timothy V. Murphy) during an under-the-table negotiation. When the FBI barges in, it seems like the deal has gone south — until it’s revealed that the “feds” are actually Charlie’s father Leo (William Fichtner), mother Fran (Polly Draper), and sister Birdie (Sarah Wayne Callies), who work as a team to “level the playing field” by fleecing the rich and entitled.
By the time he meets undercover agent Emma Hill (Kim, known for recurring roles in Good Trouble and FBI), Charlie is ready to let off some steam, and the two share a whirlwind night — turned day, turned night again — of passion in a hotel suite. Ventimiglia and Kim are magnetic in these moments, their chemistry so palpable that more explicit sexual references aren’t necessary. (As with other network shows, The Company You Keep features heavy kissing and postcoital intimacy, but no nudity.) With this tension simmering beneath every scene, it comes as no surprise that when Charlie and Emma meet up again, they fall into bed before even making it into the restaurant for dinner.
Charlie and Emma’s overwhelming attraction — and Ventimiglia and Kim’s impressive ability to sell it — only heightens the dramatic irony that fuels the plot. As the two grow closer, their professional lives intersect when Emma begins investigating the crime syndicate run by Maguire. For now, Charlie and Emma don’t know the other’s true identity, but it’s only a matter of time before her search leads to the Nicoletti family business, at which point they will be forced to reconcile their intense feelings for one another with their career and familial responsibilities.
The first two episodes efficiently define the gravity of their high-concept love affair For Charlie, letting Emma in on his secret means putting his family at risk of prison time or, even worse, punishment by Maguire and his crew; for Emma, getting involved with a con artist threatens to end her brother’s (Tim Chiou) Senate campaign and destroy the reputation of her family, a political dynasty considered to be the “Asian American Kennedys.”
Some of the B-plots are frivolous — Episode 2, “A Sparkling Reputation,” sees Charlie get out of a jam via a scheme that only makes half-sense — but The Company You Keep wisely stays focused on Charlie and Emma’s powerful connection. Creators Julia Cohen and Phil Klemmer (Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu also serves as an executive producer) seem to understand that the fizzy chemistry between these characters is the draw, and it’s clearly where they’ve made the greatest investment. Put simply, if it’s a steamy romance you’re after, then the ABC drama will fit the bill. If you want a well-developed crime thriller, then look elsewhere.
Interestingly, while The Company You Keep’s fascination with scammers is decidedly modern, it feels like a return to the breezy fun of the aughts, when Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives ruled ABC’s lineup. Just as This Is Us helped usher in an era of intense family dramas, Ventimiglia’s new series has the potential to bring about a second wave of sexy, lighthearted shows with broad appeal. After years of unchecked franchise expansion and ham-fisted attempts at addressing social issues, network television could use a series like this — and who better to lead it than an actor audiences have been lusting over for the past 20 years?
The Company You Keep premieres Sunday, February 19 at 10:00 PM ET on ABC. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.