This has been a good couple of months for TV watching, thanks to the DVDs of Hustle and Life on Mars. I enjoyed Hustle significantly more, but I found LoM very gripping on occasion, and I think in many ways the writers had set themselves a much harder task than Hustle, so it's not surprising that it disappoints more often.
These days my first impulse when I've enjoyed a bit of TV is to rush online and see what I can find in the way of discussions and fanfic. There's a striking contrast in how much of both you can find for LoM compared with Hustle. There is, to put it bluntly, as good as nothing for Hustle. Fanfic is present in homeopathic quantities, while discussion of the series is, as far as I can discover, completely non-existent. LoM, on the other hand, has a number of thriving LJ communities, stuffed with fic (some of it very good indeed), and full of lively discussions and acute observations.
I think the answer lies in what they're both about. LoM, as I see it, is about being an outsider. In the course of the series Sam goes from wanting to be an outsider, from trying desperately to get away from this country he's been exiled to, from trying to get back home, to wanting to be part of what he's found, to thinking of his new world as "home". He starts off disgusted by the place and hyper-critical of almost everyone in it, and ends up with a compromise between them and him thathe's more than happy to live with. In fact, by the final two episodes, the only thing that's keeping him from being fully integrated, that's providing dramatic tension and conflict, is the continued affection he feels for his old home. And, of course, when he gets back to the old country, he realises it wasn't as great as he remembered. He's like Robert Louis Stevenson, longing for Scotland when he's in the South Seas, and then missing Polynesia the moment he sets foot in Scotland. It's a very emotional narrative, full of pain and angst and conflict, and it generates a corresponding amount of fan activity.
Hustle, by contrast, is only very rarely interested in emotions that are not fake, and when it is, it has a slightly dutiful feel about it - Mickey's relationship with his wife, Stacie's pining for Mickey, Ash's ex-wife, the torch Danny carries for Stacie, these are elements that are introduced at the beginning - presumably because audiences need this kind of emotional "hook" - and then get quietly dropped. Because unlike LoM, Hustle isn't about relationships, or aspects of the human condition, it's about storytelling. More specifically, it's about the kind of storytelling you can do with actors, but it's about storytelling in general as well.
The "long con", as presented on the show, works by getting the mark to construct a narrative on the basis of the elements the grifters offer. Many of the "rules" of the con translate into guidelines for good storytelling - get the mark to do all the running (if it's too perfect, they'll get suspicious); you can't con an honest man (you can't get anyone invested in a narrative if they have no interest in the outcome - the mark foresees a great big financial payoff at the end, just as the reader expects a narrative one); the big move covers the small (there has to be stuff going on underneath the surface; what a story is "about" is not the same as "what happens").
The way the individual cons are constructed also demonstrates a great deal about the art of narrative. Characters that are essential to the narrator's (=the grifter's) purpose have to be introduced for apparently entirely different motives; over and over again, the mark is encouraged to get actively involved - apparent obstacles crop up, and it's the mark who finds the solution; the story doesn't just unfold with the mark as passive observer, instead they have to actively help construct what happens (or so they're led to believe; in fact, they're responding to clues the grifters have already planted, as when Johnny Keyes discovers the ancient port bottle and suddenly sees a way out of his dilemma); the characters in the pot mustn't be seen to be cooperating with each other in the service of the ultimate aim, in fact there needs to be plenty of conflict between them.
Ultimately, "the big move covers the small" is the rule Hustle most takes to heart in its own storytelling. Often the narrative is working at three levels - what the mark thinks is going on, what the audience thinks is going on and what is actually going on. We keep our eye on what we think is the pot with the pea under it, and are utterly delighted at the end to find that it is somewhere else entirely, and yet the small moves were always present in the narrative, had we only been looking in the right place. A good storyteller, like a good grifter, will make sure the reader is always looking where they want them to look, is contantly distracted from the small moves that constitute what the story is really "about" as opposed to "what happens".
In S3, Hustle's metafictional interest in the art of storytelling is particularly apparent, because it makes so much use of non-naturalistic devices to tell the story. This focus on the medium as a way of delivering the message naturally draws our attention to the fictitiousness of what we're being shown. Bollywood and Charlie Chaplin function as alienation effects, drawing attention to the process of storytelling as well as the product. But this has always been an element of the show, beginning with the breaking of the fourth wall in episode 1. And of course, on another, equally satisfying level, watching the various members of the crew playing a range of very different characters draws our attention to the fact that they themselves are also characters, played by talented actors. Ash Morgan, fixer, is as much a creation of Robert Glenister as the Polish floorcleaner or the Welsh police driver.
It's wonderful; but it's not really the stuff of fanfic.