"Sometimes bad guys are the only good guys you get."
"Leverage" wastes no time getting started. Its opening scene offers no backstory, no gradual lead-in. Our introduction goes straight to the point: former insurance investigator Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton) is hired to lead a band of thieves in retrieving stolen airplane designs. It's a style repeated throughout the first season of the series, which debuted in December 2008 on TNT (a second season premieres this week); the writers don't bother revealing how Nate's clients find him, and minimal emphasis is placed on the aftermath of his capers. Here's a show that drops us right into the fun, then lifts us out just in time.
Backstory is eventually revealed, but only to a point. We learn Nate's son died when his insurance firm denied payment for treatment, which led to his divorce and current alcoholism. More is revealed as the season progresses, but not much - just enough to give the character a sense of depth. And even then, it's used in service of the plot, as the season's final episodes involve Nate seeking revenge on his old boss. Another episode, set in a rehab clinic, is the closest we get to fully dealing with Nate's addictions, but it eventually backs away, either to save some development for later seasons or, more likely, to not clutter the action.
Other characters remain equally underwritten. The show's premise is that Nate and his newly gathered band of expert thieves team up to help the innocent by using their criminal wiles to con, rob, and ruin those that did their clients wrong, often breaking the law along the way. ("We pick up where the law leaves off," Nate often explains.) Think of it as "Mission: Impossible" by way of "The A-Team." The centerpiece of each episode is "the game," and fans of twisty capers and cunning grifts will admire the show's let's-get-to-it approach. But the show also leaves the players as little more than types: the face, the muscle, the brain, the daredevil - or as Nate himself puts it, "grifter, hitter, hacker, thief." All have backgrounds so mysterious that the show can't really explore them as people.
It tries, once, in the episode "The Stork Job." Here, ace thief Parker (Beth Riesgraf) is allowed to grow slightly beyond her quirky, socially inept ways as she finds compassion for Serbian orphans. She, too, was an orphan, and Albert Kim's teleplay pushes the character toward matter far more serious than the goofy subplot of "The Two-Horse Job" where it's revealed Parker is afraid of horses because of an intentionally silly memory. Riesgraf, who otherwise fills her role with adorable awkwardness and a lightness that's smarter a performance than it looks, is finally allowed a serious moment, and it lifts the episode into something more engaging than usual.
It doesn't last, however, as executive producer Chris Downey, John Rogers, and Dean Devlin prefer a lighter touch. The secret history for tough guy Eliot (Christian Kane) becomes a sort of running gag - he's been everywhere, and everywhere he's been, he's put the smackdown on the local crime lords. Hardison (Aldis Hodge), the resident hacker, is given a standard computer-genius backstory that's even slighter, amounting to nothing more than "he's hacked into tough places and sometimes gotten caught." Attention to both roles is paid more to their modern personalities: Eliot the soft-hearted brute, Hardison the "Doctor Who"-obsessed smartass. Kane and Hodge have so much fun with the characters that's it tough to blame them for any flaws. They both make the very most out of their thin roles, so much so that by the end of the season, they're fully developed, even if their histories aren't.
Con artist Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman) rounds out the crew. She's an intentional enigma - as an art thief who's used a series of aliases for years, it's not even clear if Sophie is her real name; her "woman of a thousand faces" talent for creating complete personalities and dialects out of thin air (Bellman proves to be a pro at this) leaves us wondering if she's not conning Nate's crew, too.
Which leads us to an angle the series never quite follows, at least in this initial season: as all four crooks are lifelong loners, they could at any time bail on Nate, or perhaps pull a doublecross. But while several times throughout the season the team seems like they might go their separate ways, only once does an episode hint that the crew might be getting scammed by one of their own, and it's such a thin theory that it doesn't build the sort of tension it attempts.
Indeed, "Leverage" works best when it sweeps away such things. For all my grumbling about underdeveloped characters, such development is hardly needed in these kinds of stories, where it's all about the con. How will the crew outwit their mark? How will they escape danger? These are wafer-thin adventures dosed with the right amount of action and, more importantly, comedy.
And when a recurring villain appears in the form of Jim Sterling (Mark Sheppard), Nate's former co-worker who's now intent on busting Nate's operation, we're not thrilled because he offers a further peek into Nate's private history. We're thrilled because he's a wrench in the gears, another mark Nate must outfox.
The capers themselves are ingeniously designed and wonderfully executed, with the season's thirteen episodes offering a full range of con possibilities, from the simplicities of separating a corrupt contractor from his money to the complexities of swiping two statues from a museum after announcing the crime in advance. Even this early in the series, the writers are already looking for new twists: "The Mile High Job" forces the crew to improvise an assignment while on board a moving airplane; "The Bank Shot Job" derails a case when Nate and Sophie are held hostage in a bank robbery, changing plans for all; "The Juror #6 Job" finds Parker uncovering a new possible case while on jury duty.
(It's likely no coincidence that most of the series' villains are relatable. Sure, there's the occasional Serbian arms dealer or Yakuza hitman, but we also get insurance swindlers, wealthy racketeers, and other brands of everyday power. Victims are usually everyday folks who've lost their homes, or money for charity; one episode pits an Iraq War vet against a Halliburton-esque company. In an age of corporate dominance, "Leverage" provides a healthy dose of sticking it to the man.)
The series convinces us to suspend disbelief long beyond what we otherwise would. The crew have a bad habit of speaking way too loudly into their earpiece communicators, and a worse habit of meeting in public, often too close to a mark, when they're supposed to be playing strangers. It's tough to accept such frequent "yeah, right" occurrences with a straight face, but then, "Leverage" rarely has a straight face itself. It's so playful with its plotlines and characters and games that we get swept along well enough, not minding the eye-rolling bits.
It's all thanks to a great sense of charm. The cast is terrific, bringing out the comedy without reaching for camp, while the scripts, if not exactly airtight, offer enough breezy fun. It's a bit slight, but it's also solid entertainment.
Paramount collects all thirteen episodes onto four discs for "Leverage: The 1st Season." The four discs fit nicely into a single-wide case with two double-sided trays.
The pilot episode, "The Nigerian Job," originally debuted as a 57-minute special before getting re-edited for reruns; this collection restores the episode to its original length. All other episodes are presented with their original 43-minute running times, and all are presented in the producers' preferred original production (but not broadcast) order.
The episodes included in this set are:
Disc One: "The Nigerian Job", "The Homecoming Job", and "The Wedding Job".
Disc Two: "The Snow Job", "The Mile High Job", and "The Miracle Job".
Disc Three: "The Two-Horse Job", "The Bank Shot Job", "The Stork Job", and "The Juror #6 Job".
Disc Four: "The 12-Step Job", "The First David Job", and "The Second David Job".
Video & Audio
"Leverage" was shot on hi-def video, and while this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer doesn't quite pop like it does in full HD, it does top the standard-def broadcast look, with crisp detail and a terrific display of color. Grain pops up in darker scenes, but it's minimal enough to earn a pass.
There's nothing fancy about the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, but nothing fancy's needed. Dialogue comes through marvelously, with a nice range on the effects and music. No subtitles are provided.
Commentaries are provided for all thirteen episodes. Featured on each track are:
"The Nigerian Job": executive producer Chris Downey, executive producer John Rogers, and executive producer/director Dean Devlin.
"The Homecoming Job": Downey, Rogers, and Devlin.
"The Wedding Job": Downey, Rogers, Devlin, and director Jonathan Frakes.
"The Snow Job": Downey, Rogers, Devlin, writer Albert Kim, and director Tony Bill.
"The Mile High Job": Downey, Rogers, Devlin, writer/producer Amy Berg, and director Rob Minkoff.
"The Miracle Job": Downey, Rogers, writer Christine Boylan, and director Arvin Brown.
"The Two-Horse Job": Downey, Rogers, writer Melissa Glenn, writer Jessica Reider, and director Craig Baxley.
"The Bank Shot Job": Rogers, Devlin, and writer/producer Berg.
"The Stork Job": Downey, Rogers, writer Kim, and producer/director Marc Roskin.
"The Juror #6 Job": Downey, Rogers, writer Rebecca Kirsch, and director Frakes.
"The 12-Step Job": Downey, Rogers, Devlin, writer Burke, and director Rod Hardy.
"The First David Job": Rogers and Devlin.
"The Second David Job": Downey, Rogers, and Devlin.
All tracks are lively and informative; it's clear everyone involved loves the show, and that admiration pours through here.
Deleted scenes are offered for the following episodes: "The Nigerian Job" (5:13), "The Homecoming Job" (5:58), "The Snow Job" (4:22), "The Mile High Job" (:25), "The Miracle Job" (:47), "The Two-Horse Job" (7:51), "The Bank Shot Job" (1:12), "The 12-Step Job" (3:30), and "The Second David Job" (:31). Don't let some of the longer run times fool you, though; much of these clips are merely extended edits of scenes, presented here with a little too much of the footage you've already seen in the final cuts; the amount of new material is much less. There are some fun moments to be found here, though. (Also watch for a rare blooper or two sprinkled throughout.) These clips are offered on the corresponding episodes' discs.
The rest of the extras are saved for Disc Four. We start with "Leverage: Behind the Scenes" (12:40), a making-of featurette that mixes traditional cast and crew interviews (discussing characters, stories, etc.) with far more interesting tidbits like those involving technical advisor Apollo Robbins, a sort of criminal expert who coached the actors on the finer points of grifting and pickpocketing.
"Anatomy of a Stunt Fight" (3:23) offers simple home video footage of the choreographing of a fight sequence in "The First David Job." The most amusing discovery: even while filming, Christian Kane apparently makes the same sound effects noises we all make when pretend-fighting.
"The Cameras of Leverage" (2:14) might as well be called "Camera Porn." It's nothing but lengthy shots of the hi-tech cameras in action and on display. Those who drool at the thought of top shelf HD cameras will like what they see; the rest needn't bother.
"Leverage Gets Renewed" (2:52) shows us footage of the cast learning they've been picked up for a second season.
The disc rounds out with "Parker Can't Lose: Beth Riesgraf vs. the Writers of Leverage" (5:02), a humorous short produced for the website If Magazine. In this mockumentary, Riesgraf is played up as a demented diva pitching the producers on new episode ideas, such as one where Parker becomes a half-thief, half-shark.
A set of previews - including one for "Leverage" itself - plays as Disc One loads.
(Note: All bonus material is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.)
A bit rough in plenty of patches, and with plenty of room to develop in future seasons, there's enough fun in this initial batch of episodes - and enough bonus material to make any fan happy - for "Leverage" to be quite Recommended.