Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Stuff Josh Likes: Leverage


I first heard about Leverage shortly after it started airing in 2008. I happened upon the blog of one of the writers, and the show sounded kind of stupid. The main character is an insurance investigator whose company denied his son life-saving treatment. The son dies, and the hero vows revenge on the Bernie Madoffs of the world. He assembles a team of experts, and they pull con jobs on the wealthy and corrupt. It just sounded outstandingly lame.

Too nuanced a villain for Leverage
I tend to really dislike revenge porn to begin with, and it seemed like they were going the cheap and lazy route by making their adversaries such caricatures. I mean, everybody in America hates someone who would deny a kid medical treatment/knowingly market toxic drugs/skin dalmatians to make a coat.

So, I had no interest, and an overall negative impression when I found it while flipping through the channels one night. I stopped because I recognized Christian Kane from Angel, the spin off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I usually like his stuff. (He was also great in Secondhand Lions).  So we watched an episode and we really enjoyed it. Here's why:

The Crew 


It's no coincidence that John Rogers, one of the principle creators and writers of the show, has worked in Role Playing Games. (He wrote some 4th edition stuff, and he writes the ongoing D&D comic now.)

The team functions like a group of adventurers, though far more competent (I've heard the series described as "Competence Porn", which is a turn of phrase that I like) than any group of which I've been a part.

We have Timothy Hutton as Nate Ford, the Brains: I actually prefer "Mastermind", the term used in the RPG, and earlier episodes to "Brains", which makes him seem like he's a zombie hungry for Brains. I understand that they did it for symmetry  in the titles, but it's still a pretty weak substitute.

 Before the show begin, he's a big shot investigator for an insurance company. They deny life-saving treatment to his son, who dies. Nate implodes and descends into alcoholism, which costs him his marriage and his career.

He's the one who recruits the team and plans their missions. I really like Nate, in large part because of his flaws. (Lily always tells me that I only like people who make mistakes.) Something inside him is broken in a fundamental way, but he's still trying to help other people, even though he believes he's beyond help. ("The muscle I hustle is real for my friends/but the muscle I keep for myself is pretend.") He begins the series as a functioning alcoholic, a type of character almost invisible in entertainment.

Gina Bellman is Sophie Devereaux, the Grifter: 

I read once that actors who are only familiar with theater work are prone to broad gestures when acting, because they've been taught to make those exaggerated gestures so that the people in the rear of the audience can see what they're doing.

I think something similar applies to actors on a television show. They were brought on board to play characters, but now they're just playing caricatures, with one or two broad and extremely simplified character traits.

This is a really meaty role. In essence, Gina Bellman gets to play a new character every episode. She's playing Sophie playing an heiress, or a southern belle or a record exec or world class athlete. I love the interplay between Sophie and Nate, where Nate feeds her some generic instructions and Sophie transmogrifies then into the perfect words to move the mark. She's an extremely talented performer, and it's very cool to see a woman older than 22 in such a substantial role.

Aldis Hodge is Alec Hardison, "The Hacker":
"Are there other black nerds, or is it just you and Urkel?" I love Hardison. He's like the platonic ideal of the nerd. "I'm going to show you how smart I am...in the stupidest way possible."

Hardison is a lot of fun, and as close to the point of view character as we get on the show.He's this unapologetic giant geek, and the show lets him give a bunch of winking acknowledgements to the audience.

Also, at the end of the pilot, he made everyone millionaires. I like that everyone on the team is doing what they do not in anticipation of some big score, but because they want to help people who can't help themselves.

Christian Kane is Eliot Spencer, "The Hitter"

Elliot has a trait in the RPG, "Smarter than he looks". Elliot really is my friend Frederick. He never starts a fight. He doesn't say more than he has to. He sticks up for the little guy.  I remember an episode where their cover is blown early on, and they try to bluff their way out and evade security, instead of just sending Elliot out to shoot everyone in the face. Like everyone else in the show, there's a profound decency about the man, and more than anyone else, he's the team's moral center.

Beth Riesgraf is Parker, "The Thief" She's really attractive, but so is Gina Bellman. And so is almost every mainstream actress, really. Physical attractiveness is not exactly raretonium in Hollywood.  But I really like her...vitality. I remember an old post of Kungfu Monkey, where John Rogers gave everyone D&D stats. He assigned a lower than average charisma to Parker, who is amazingly super hot, but who is also distanced from normal people that she makes them uneasy.

Star Trek


Jeri Ryan filled in when Gina Bellman was pregnant, Wil Wheaton was a rival hacker, Johnathan Frakes directed several episodes, including one involving a court case with Quark as an expert witness. It was like watching an episode of Gargoyles!





I'm pretty aggressively Anti-Libertarian. I don't think that every person is bad, but enough are that society requires a strong, neutral arbiter to prevent the strong from preying on the weak. I remember something a professor said in college. Part of the agreement of living in a civilized society is that you give up the right to personally settle grievances with those who have wronged you. Society does this on your behalf.

Those who punish the wrongdoers are not the Leverage team, nor those who have been victimized. Almost every time, the civil authorities are the ones who take custody of , and punish the wrongdoers. Bad people did bad things. They got away with their crimes for a little while, but now they're being punished for it.

Did I call it "Competence Porn"? Maybe I meant "Populist Porn" instead.

The Theme of the Show


I'm not talking about the musical theme, though I think it's extremely distinctive and very well done, but the ideals involved.I think it comes down to one word: Empathy

When I expressed interest in Leverage during its original run, a friend told me to watch Burn Notice instead, which he said told the same stories, but better. I don't think it did, though.

And I do realize  that, to a large extent, the human interest stories that serve to move the plot are only framing mechanisms for a one hour heist movie, but I don't think you can dismiss them entirely.  Leverage wanted to be perceived as a show about finding justice for the weak and the powerless, and it was.

Justice is a human concept.

"Justice?You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law."

"The universe did not invent justice. Man did. Unfortunately, man must reside in the universe."

I may have a dim view of humanity, but I think that when most people say they want justice, they mean they want vengeance. I've been wronged, and now the person who wronged me is going to pay. Leverage is one of those rare shows that attempts to rise above this.

That's as perfect a summary as Leverage as you're likely to find.

No comments:

Post a Comment