The Modest Pleasures of Leverage

Stephen Bowie’s The Classic TV History Blog is one of the interweb’s greatest pleasures for television buffs, giving us in-depth reportage and, very often, startling new facts about shows we all know and love. This recent post is the best overview we’ve ever seen of a remarkable and greatly underrated series.

Without further ado:

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by Stephen Bowie

Leverage is the kind of modern show that people who don’t like modern television tend to like. It’s old-fashioned: formulaic, familiar, minimally serialized. It’s a genre show – a weekly caper, Mission: Impossible retrofitted for an era where capitalists, not communists, are the bad guys. Usually I hate contemporary TV shows that try to be like old TV shows. But Leverage is special. It’s a lot of fun. And it kept getting better as it went along – I have to switch to the past tense now, because its cancellation was announced while I noodled with this piece.

The heroes of Leverage are a quintet of criminals who do the Robin Hood bit: they use their skills to avenge the little guys who have been wronged, usually by some legally untouchable corporate fatcat. It’s a show about the 47% versus the 1%, and although its politics are smart and topical, it doesn’t ram them down the viewer’s throat. The secret to Leverage is that although the plots are intricate, the show is – in a way that Mission: Impossible always resisted – totally character-driven.

The leader of the gang, Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton), is a former insurance investigator driven toward vengeance by the death of his son at the hands of, yes, his corrupt employer. His team is composed of likable misfits, each with a useful set of skills: actress/grifter Sophie (Gina Bellman), who has an (initially) unrequited affection for Nate; computer hacker Hardison (Aldis Hodge), a fast-talking nerd; muscle man Eliot (Christian Kane), who has rage issues; and thief/pickpocket Parker (Beth Riesgraf), a blithely adorable sociopath.

Although Nate remains a moody, tormented soul, Leverage is essentially light-hearted. A breezy, improvisational performance style shifts the show away from its angry center, and makes it more of a romp. The actors are all winners, complementing each other in a way that reminds me of the original C.S.I. ensemble. Their camaraderie is joyous – it’s clear that both the actors and their characters are having the time of their lives. It’s touching to see these misfits form a makeshift family, even as the actors are shrewd enough to remind us it’s a dysfunctional one. Kane, in particular, has a compact, subtly Southern, and very authentic sense of tightly contained violence, and yet it informs a funny kind of comic timing. Particularly during Eliot’s banter with Hardison, whose geekiness drives him up the wall, Kane’s short-fuse is hilarious. Riesgraf, too, never lets go of her character’s fundamental oddness. She’s like a robot learning how to be human.

When good actors get the chance to build their characters from the ground up, and stay true to them over the course of a long-running show, magic happens. By the fourth season, some of the characters have coupled romantically in ways that are touching (and also plausible, unlike some of the “shipping” on C.S.I.). Nate’s functional alcoholism remains a fascinatingly unresolved issue. Just the fact that Leverage doesn’t feel the need to scold or cure him is itself impressive, but the way the other characters dance around it, how they have to find ways to deal with their concern and cover for their leader’s shortcomings without trying to fix him, adds a layer of uneasy tension. A lot of good shows wither because the writers can’t generate realistic conflicts between the main characters – famously, Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that everyone on a 23rd century starship got along swimmingly drove the writers of Star Trek nuts. On Leverage, the five protagonists have needs and values that are varied and clearly demarcated, so conflicts arise organically. While it’s impossible not to root for the bonds between these vulnerable people to last, there’s a constant awareness that they’re all fundamentally loners, that they could fall out and go their separate ways if things really went sideways.

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