Return to Leverage

Leverage has arrived on TNT, and we’ve now had four episodes (the pilot which I discussed earlier and three more).

As the show settles into its digs, we can see what the series is likely to look and feel like in an ongoing fashion.  Leverage is clearly over-the-top, trading mimetic realism for the joyous fun of heist and con-man action where Awesomeness is a clear and present aesthetic agenda.

In “The Two-Horse Job” and in “The Miracle Job,” the characters’ backstory is central both to the reason for the team taking each case and also plays out in the interpersonal drama between the leads and the guest-star clients.   Other characters’ investment in the individual jobs waxes and wanes based on their personal beliefs regarding the lines which the team has to cross along the way, which keeps the procedural formula from growing stale.

Leverage plays like a 21st century A-team, but instead of being a group of ex-special forces soldiers, the show draws more upon the caper, heist, and do-gooder fixer traditions of series including Mission: Impossible, Burn Notice and films like Ocean’s Eleven, among many others. The characters are a WASP-y ex-insurance claims investigator, a black geek-chic computer hacker, an Autism-spectrum super-thief, an actress who is abysmal in productions but inspired in confidence games, and a wise-cracking thug.  The actors bring enthusiasm and oddity to their characters, making sure that each character is just a couple degrees off-center for their archetype.

We’ve also been introduced to an ongoing antagonist for the characters in Jim Sterling, played by Mark “Badger” Sheppard.  Sterling is a worthy opponent for our team, having taken over in the job formerly held by Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton), the team’s leader.

One of the main reasons the show is compelling is that for all the heroes’ schemes and plotting, things keep going wrong.  They have a good idea which goes much further than intended, and then they need to come up with a new scam to un-do the earlier scam.  This scrambling and reversal forces the characters to go out of their comfort zones, improvise, and get into more trouble.

Table Talk and The Joy of Planning

The show also plays like a tabletop RPG game, unsurprising since the show and certain traditions of tabletop play draw influence from the same sources.  Each character is an expert in their niche, they have diverse and intriguing backgrounds, and most of all, they bicker and banter over planning in a way that is highly reminiscent of any number of gaming sessions where characters spend more time thinking of the plan than actually executing those plans.

And here’s the thing — in a caper/confidence game situation, the planning is one of the most fun/exciting things.  The architecture of a scam, the construction and unfolding of a human Rube Goldberg machine provides one of the main aesthetic thrills of the narrative mode which Leverage makes its home territory.

Where shows like LOST have used extended flashbacks to provide B-plots for episodes, portraying characters at different stages of their life to show character growth or lack therof, Leverage often goes for quick flashbacks to provide punchlines to jokes our to counter-point/undermine what a character is saying in the present.  Leverage‘s flashbacks are more mad-cap, and provide a fair amount of the sjow’s Over-The-Topness.

Leverage is a show to watch, and has the benefit of Prime-time cable-drama ratings expectations rather than Network Prime-Time expectations.  I doubt Leverage will ever be a big hit, but it may be able to achieve a strong following based on its quirky and compelling over-the-top caper action.

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