Written by: Patrick Kelly, CC2K TV Editor
There is a new show on TNT, starting on December 7th, called Leverage. If you have seen commercials for it you have undoubtedly written it off as a new, serialized version of Ocean’s Eleven, Mission Impossible, or The Italian Job. You are not totally wrong in assuming that this new show will include all of the usual exclamation points: Cool Cons! Unsuspecting Marks! Innovative Gadgets! Action! Girls Fighting/Stealing! Practical Uses for New Technologies! But you would be wrong in assuming that the successes of these previous caper films/shows leave no place for the story and the episodes of Leverage. Why? Because Leverage is a good show (When I watched the first two episodes on DVD, I naturally tried to press play on the third episode without realizing that there wasn’t a third episode yet). Good against the overwhelming franchised piles of shit like CSI and Law and Order and good against the commendable, thoughtful shows like Rescue Me and Pushing Daises. On the other hand, it’s a good show by default—because it’s really hard to figure out what’s a good show anymore— How can you measure what’s good or what’s bad when Dancing With the Stars dominates every weeknight and shows like Ugly Betty dominate Emmy talk? Leverage is a decidedly simple name about a decidedly complex show: While the name understates the producer’s admittance that the show itself can be boiled down to the minimal and clichéd, the storyline and it’s characters are far more complicated. The premise of the show is this: Timothy Hutton stars as Nathan Ford, a former insurance investigator who specialized in recovering extremely high-priced valuables (think Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair— but hotter). He helped catch thieves until his son was diagnosed with cancer. Because his same insurance company refused to pay for his son’s treatment, the kid dies. Predictably, Nate decided to hang it up and drink until he was finished. This was a long time ago. Now, Nate, having been lured out of retirement with the chance to get back at that very same insurance company (the pilot episode’s mark), heads up a team of four (historically isolated) thieves who take revenge on the corporations who use power and wealth to squash the unsuspecting and naive little man. They use wits and cool gadgets to do this. It’s Robin Hood meets Confidence.
As I watched the show for the first time, I became consumed by what I thought was to be a fatal flaw for an otherwise above-average show: Why wasn’t this show gritty, why wasn’t this show on FX? Why, at every single opportunity, do the producers insist on turning the show cute? In a TV world that is so dominated by the CSIs and the Cold Cases, I assumed a show that obviously sets higher standards wouldn’t stoop to the occasional corny line and the zoom-in, catch phrase, fade-out style of CSI (I do love Horatio’s sunglasses though). Even if the show is good, this cheesiness is a dealbreaker: It understates the fact that the producers willingly let the corniness happen, which is unthinkable if you are a viewer who takes pride in that fact that you only watch “quality” television. It wasn’t until I sat down with the show’s executive producer, Dean Devlin (of Independence Day-ness), that I realized there was another reason for what I had viewed as a lazy attempt on the writer’s part. Talking about the initial meetings with TNT, Dean recounts, “I said, ‘I’m not down with this trend lately of having all of these really dark edgy shows that are real dry and procedural. If I did something, I’d want it to be a throwback to the shows that I used to watch. Fun shows.’” And that’s exactly what it is— The show isn’t corny because of laziness, it’s corny because it’s playful and that is more than ok— that’s why we like half of the shows we like, because they make us feel good. Devlin continues, “I think if I pulled a gun on you right now, it’s drama. I think it’s much harder to do fun and uplifting because when you do something that is supposed to be fun. You either laugh or you didn’t.”
Of course, if the show bases its success off its ability to stay fun (and is therefore dependent on being mainstream), then it has to avoid the worst kind of television pitfall: being trapped between a small supportive crowd that doesn’t want the show to give any more ground (which Leverage is already giving a lot of) and a network that may grow hungry if it sees it’s on the verge of a real success. But, as Dean Devlin points out, he’s not worried about that. “We just wanted to have a show, where it’s a mainstream show, a fun show,” he says, “but one that never talks down to you. One that doesn’t have to get dumb to be mainstream.” If the show succeeds in that, in all thirteen already taped episodes, than it will achieve longevity and popularity.
The popularity of the show, then, is entirely dependent on the awesomeness and excitement generated by each con. Assuming the next eleven episodes are like the first two, the show won’t have a problem. Each con is entertaining enough due to its inherent wisdom, trickery, and complexity; each character is funny enough to keep you expecting another good joke; and each segment of the con is smart enough to keep your attention throughout (Devlin says, “I remember at one of the very first meetings a couple people raised their hands and said, Are they going to be able to follow that? And half the people said yes, half the people said no and, at the end of the day it didn’t matter if they did or they didn’t.”). The cons are all well thought-out (“A credit to the writers,” Devlin says) and all include a twist. For the viewer, the twist is everything—It’s the difference between the viewer watching one episode and calling it a bad imitation and watching one episode and telling their friends about it. Not to my surprise (nor the execs at TNT who are footing the bill), Devlin is confident that the show will deliver: “The fun of our show is that you want the candy. The people who tune into this want to see the con, they want to know who the villain is, they want to know who the victim is that we’re fighting for and how you’re going to get through it. That’s the compliment we’ve gotten on this show from audiences- when they say, ‘I didn’t see the ending coming.’ And, I think, that is the hardest thing to do today. We’ve all watched so many millions of hours of TV shows and movies it’s almost impossible to watch a show where you’re in the third act and you don’t know exactly how it’s going to end.”
Every show on television has an inherent flaw, with the causes ranging from a lack of an appropriate operating budget to a full-on lack of appreciation for the effects of thought-provoking and advanced writing. The inherent flaw of Leverage lies within its quest for excitement: The show devotes so much time to the development of its complex plan that it has no choice but to mend everything hastily together at the end. Both in the pilot and in the second episode, it all just magically works at the end. In the second episode specifically, the recipient (a veteran’s rehab center) is left with a truckload of cash. Don’t you think that the people who usually have the leverage will notice immediately that a near-broke rehab center is spending the money it deserves? Won’t someone come around asking questions, trying to find a way to take it away? My logic might not be valid in TV land, but if the rest of the show is based off this very logic that it can’t really be dismissed that easily. But I guess that is part of what they are saying: If the good people end up with the money, no one will ask any questions. But, someone always asks questions. This could be a fatal flaw of the show; you can’t really get away with justifying half of a harebrained scheme each week. If you start unraveling a secret-cool-ultra-hip heist plot than you have to show every last bit of it. Maybe, this can work, if this is the part where the TV show uses its mulligan.
Overall, the show works—that might not seem like the most glowing praise, but seeing that the majority of TV shows today don’t work at all, it’s a positive nonetheless. The characters are all strong and funny; the action is consistent and constant and the heists themselves are interesting and entertaining. If the show is picked up for a second season (the whole first season has been picked up already) it could be due to the shows ability to be picked up by a random viewer at any point in the season (Devlin says, “You can tune in episode 9 or episode 2. You don’t need to see everything to get what’s going on.”) Even though the show can be picked up on the fly, Leverage’s success will be completely dependent on whether they can reward the fans that have invested time week after week. And, there is no way it will be able to do that if it spends all its energy on being lighthearted. But I guess that’s caper films are now.