The Grift, a new narrative podcast about con artists, is an exploratory enterprise that’s fascinated with the architecture of the con: its mechanics, its techniques, its processes. In carrying out its business, the ten-part anthology-format show keeps the focus squarely on the con artist being documented in each episode. That gaze is held tight, and as a result, you never quite leave their world; you never quite leave their logic. For some, this may prove to be a pleasure, a safe and padded access point to a darker world and forbidden pleasure. But like the soft illusion created by a con itself, the show can also leave you feeling disoriented and empty once you step outside its distortion field.
The show is written and hosted by Maria Konnikova, a New Yorker contributor and science writer whose work often takes place within the Gladwellian zone of psychology and social science that’s in vogue in the world of popular book publishing and prestige podcasting, as NPR’s Invisibilia and Hidden Brain can attest. It’s also worth noting that the connection to Malcolm Gladwell’s work isn’t mere conceptual association; The Grift is a production of Panoply, the network also responsible for Revisionist History, Gladwell’s similarly structured anthology podcast that involved the author litigating various issues, like weird-looking free throws and food quality at college campuses.
The Grift builds upon the work Konnikova has done with The Confidence Game, her deeply researched book, published in early 2016, that analyzes the structure of cons by examining a large body of scams that have been perpetrated across history. The show’s organizing principle has a “genre of the week” quality — the first two episodes, which I used for this review, focus on card sharking and art forgery — and each episode is superficially structured as a loose biography that really serves as a framing device to talk about all the considerations that go into conducting a con. The bulk of the show is dedicated to these studies of form and technique: the construction of skewed narratives, the manipulation of dice, the creation of predator-prey power dynamics, the identification of opportunity.
Konnikova carries the show with a tone of winking wonderment, peppering the narration with expressions of marvel over the cleverness and craft of the exploits being documented. “Why do we fall for these con artists time and time again?” she states in the first episode, by way of explaining its purpose. “How did they get people to let down their defenses and hand over everything? How do con artists continue to thrive, no matter what we try to do to stop them?” The show seems to experience a real thrill in describing the power of these ultimately destructive figures, and the appreciation shown to them feels so overwhelming as to suggest a certain fatalism. “You might think you won’t fall for Jack,” Konnikova says later in that first episode, setting up the story of a card shark. “But don’t be so sure you’re immune.”
The Grift in a way solicits empathy for these con artists, since the show essentially frames the stories of the individuals as stories of addiction — and while the podcast doesn’t go so far as to explicitly excuse the acts of the central characters, it does end up positioning them in a manner that suggests some absolution of personal responsibility. Frankly, it’s all a little weird, particularly when you consider that the two men documented in the first two episodes exhibit little remorse over their histories.
The core of the show’s peculiarity can perhaps be attributed to its methodology: It’s largely carried out through explanatory narration wrapped around considerable chunks of interview tape; which is to say, the con artist is the primary source. This presents a challenge unique to the show’s relationship to its subject material, since, as Konnikova concludes in the first episode, one of the more potent tools in the con artist’s tool kit is the ability to spin strong narratives that place them in a position to deceive, manipulate, and profit from the narrative’s recipient. How, then, do you tell a clear story about a con artist when the subject himself is driving a good deal of the storytelling?
One would figure that the burden falls on the host, serving as a filter, to keep us sober. But listening to the show’s initial episodes, and the first episode in particular, Konnikova’s constant expressions of marvel kept my eyebrows arched — I never quite felt like I could trust the show’s point of view. As a result, I was left with a creeping sense that the episode was a manifestation of the con itself. I came away feeling a need to hit the shower.
It’s somewhat instructive to examine how other shows have tackled the same subject. In Snap Judgment’s take on art forgery, “Elmyr,” about the Hungarian-born art forger Elmyr de Hory who was active in the mid-1900s, the story is largely told through a secondhand source, Mark Forgy, an associate of de Hory who wrote a book that served as the basis of that episode. In that scenario, producer Joe Rosenberg draws out the narrative from Forgy, serving as a check and qualifier for the listener. And in “Saint Nick,” This American Life’s 1997 segment on a Philadelphia con artist, we’re essentially treated to a story of a con from the perspective of the marks, with producer Nancy Updike herself having once been a victim of the con man being discussed.
“Saint Nick” presents us with a stark counterpoint to The Grift, whose first episodes feature a near-absence of any substantial consideration of consequences. We learn what ends up happening to these con artists — time in jail, being brought to bear once caught — but we rarely hear about the marks. Indeed, it often feels like the marks are being positioned as rubes; in the first episode, it’s grimy card players in gambling dens across America, and in the second, it’s the art world, a subset of the elite, being scammed. But are these the only marks affected? Or are we only being served a small selection? It’s hard to know from the show. It’s just as hard to trust it.
All that said, I’m inclined to see whether things turn around, if only to measure out the opportunity The Grift may be squandering. The subject of the con, and the con artist, is universally fascinating in the same way as true crime — of which con artistry is basically a subgenre — but it seems particularly salient in 2017, as we live in the shadow of a nearly decade-old financial crisis triggered by a web of scams, a business culture largely built on lies dressed as narratives of empowerment and bootstrapping, and however you want to describe whatever the hell is going on in the nation’s capital. There is such a distinct need for a work that helps us feel through of all this, and The Grift doesn’t quite rise to meet the moment.