Looking Back at ‘Leverage’ – Let’s Go Steal Us a TV Show

{All photos from the Leverage Wiki.}

Leverage is a television show that – like the schemes used by our lead characters themselves – doesn’t seem like it should be anything special but ends up being so much more than meets the eye.

Premiering on TNT in December of 2008, the basic idea wasn’t anything new: a group of criminals (a thief, a hacker, a grifter, and the muscle) all join forces under a man who is good but wants to help others who can’t get help through normal means. Pretty much The A-Team, Mission Impossible, and so on, it’s the ‘bad guys make the best good guys’ trope for the 2000s. Created by John Rogers and Chris Downey, the show ran five seasons and continues on in tie-in novels. And while there’s the occasional ‘not great’ episode, every single one of them is a joy to watch.

I had originally started watching in the second season when I had heard that Wil Wheaton would be making a guest appearance. If I remember right, this was one of his first appearances on television since he had taken a break post-Star Trek and was the first in a line of ‘evil’ characters he was cast in. I had also been seeing the show pop up a lot in my perusal of TV Tropes, and it sounded interesting enough to give it a try.

I fell hard.

Nathan Ford helps a man in season 1’s “The Snow Job”.

It’s one of those shows you watch more for the characters than the actual plots, and it’s filled with geek references and clever quips that make the tropey premise work. (I literally squeed the first time they made a reference to Doctor Who.)  There are also a number of shout outs and crossovers from other shows I liked, from one of the main characters being Christian Kane from Angel to a recurring part for Mark Sheppard (from Firefly and before he popped up on Supernatural and Doctor Who) to shows being directed by Jonathan Frakes and Frank Oz.

The Characters

Timothy Hutton’s character, Nathan Ford, is technically the head of this group – the only one without a criminal record at the beginning. However, he is far from morally superior to the others and in fact goes on a personal journey through the five seasons where he is called out more than once for being morally gray.

Gina Bellman’s grifter, Sophie, gives us so many stories as to who she is that we never quite know anything about her. When the actress needed time off to have a baby, the show did something rather rare in television: they gave her character time off to find herself and actually used her time away as a way to give her some more background.

Christian Kane’s Eliot is somewhat your typical ‘brute who’s deeper than we realize’, but Kane makes it work. Eliot doesn’t just beat up people (usually with comments about the style of fighting or the weapons involved) – he also loves to cook, and the show gives Kane a chance to show off his singing at one point as well.

One of Parker’s alias’ is drawn into jury duty in season 1’s “The Juror Number Six Job”.

Beth Riesgraf’s thief Parker was, I think, the first time I started hearing the word Aspergers when it came to describing these ‘quirky’ socially awkward characters that started becoming more popular right around this time. But it’s never played for laughs unless she’s in on the joke. TV Tropes states that she actually did all the lifts we see Parker do, and she is probably my favorite character out of the bunch.

And finally, we have hacker (and geek/nerd) Alec Hardison, played by Aldis Hodge. Not only do we have a geek who’s definitely one of the cool guys, albeit with a tendency for Star Trek references and a knowledge of gaming that’s a little too obsessive, the fact that he’s an African American geek is not even referenced – which is, unfortunately, rare on television. His geekiness is an asset and one of the rare positive geek portrayals we have in media.

These characters all develop and grow over the five seasons. They have relationships with each other that aren’t cut-and-dry and that evolve slowly over time. They distrust each other in the first episode, and by the end of the series, they are a found family, ready to die for each other.

Santa is in trouble in season 3’s “The Ho Ho Ho Job”.

The Schemes

The basic idea is that the Leverage team helps out those who can’t get help through normal means. Most of the time, this is due to the villain being a person of power: either someone rich, a politician, or both. It has a strong anti-Wall Street and anti-capitalism message, with a Robin Hood theme present throughout. Most of their clients state flat out that the money isn’t the main issue – they just want to see the villain of the week get their just deserts.

This message, as TV Tropes pointed out, makes the show an ‘unintentional period piece’: “John Rogers acknowledges several times in the commentaries that the show came along at the exact right time, with America reeling from its economic meltdown and having a ton of resentment toward the big corporations that let it happen. So it was able to become a quite pertinent revenge fantasy.”

Unfortunately, TV Tropes also points out that the show runners – in blogs they wrote during the run of the show – indicated that they actually pulled back on many of the evil schemes that were taken from real life, as they were afraid audiences wouldn’t believe them.

A scene from season 2’s “The Two Live Crew”.

While the schemes themselves were over the top and campy at the best of times, it was everything that I love about heist movies. Yes, the overall plot followed a set pattern: you know that the initial ploy is going to fail somehow, and you also know that the team either planned for that fail or had a backup plan that dovetails it perfectly. You also know that after the initial plan is stated, Nathan will say, “Let’s go steal us a x,” with x being the item of the week. (In fact, in one of the rare times he doesn’t say that Parker spends the rest of the episode somewhat distressed by it.)

But the predictability of the plot is kind of the point – and part of why I started rewatching it lately on Netflix. It’s comforting in the best way: you know our heroes are going to win, the bad guys will get what’s coming to them, and justice will prevail. In today’s chaotic world, it’s a bit of a relief to know my heroes may be complex, but everything will work out in the end.

The team goes to a mystery-themed costume party in season 4’s “The Ten Li’l Grifters Job”.

It also helps that the actors are obviously enjoying their time playing these characters. In fact, thanks to TV Tropes, I found out that many of the minor details are the writers playing to the actor’s strengths. Christian Kane can sing? Let’s do a plot that involves him being a country music star. Aldis Hodge can play a violin? Let’s do a plot where he has to act like a first violinist, playing a very complicated piece. You’ve got Wil Wheaton guest starring? Let’s have him make jokes about Gina Bellman’s character dressing up as Counselor Troi.

In the end, Leverage is a show that is fun to watch and leaves you satisfied at the end. Is there much more we can ask for from television?

Leverage is currently streaming all five seasons on Netflix and Hulu Plus and is also available to buy as DVDs and on video-on-demand sites such as Amazon Video and iTunes. For more information on the show, visit Leverage on TV Tropes.

Angie also posted this on her website, Contents May Vary.

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