So Bad, They're Great

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leverage.jpgHear that low, rhythmic rumbling sound in the distance, drawing ever nearer as Wednesday, July 15 approaches? That, my friends, is what John Rogers -- co-creator of TNT's terrific heist-caper series Leverage -- refers to as The Fun Train. And it's going full steam ahead.

Look, if you don't enjoy heist capers in at least some way, shape, or form, you're most likely a Communist. Or dead. Or a dead Communist. A brilliant mastermind assembling a team of eccentric experts to pull off an elegant, morally justifiable bit of larceny? What's not to love? Leverage, with its breezy writing and first-rate cast, delivers all of this in spades. But beware -- this show's running a con of its own, and you, the viewer, are the mark. Because The Fun Train makes sudden and unexpected stops, and the stations at which it does are dark, lonely, compelling places indeed.
Timothy Hutton is Nate Ford, a former insurance investigator whose ex-employer denied his son a life-saving medical treatment just to pad its bottom line. Now, to get revenge on them and all the other pinstriped bastards screwing over ordinary people in the name of the Almighty Dollar, he's assembled an expert team of the very same criminals he used to hunt down -- and he's out to rob the fat cats blind.

You'd expect a former Oscar winner on the basic cable to slum it, even a little bit, especially in a show that wears its pulp influences on its sleeve. Hutton, to his considerable credit, does not. His performance here is every bit as lived-in, complex, and engaging as his work on NBC's late, great Kidnapped a few years back.

It certainly doesn't hurt that his co-stars all bring their respective A-games, too. Gina Bellman, who's previously walked off with great whopping chunks of Coupling and Jekyll, is Sophie the grifter -- a hilariously wretched actress on the legitimate stage, but a master manipulator on the job. With all due respect to Leverage's writers, none of them are Steven Moffat-class brilliant, so Bellman doesn't come across quite as uproarious or electrifying here. But she plays her meaty and intriguing relationship with Nate expertly, and when the show does give her a chance to be funny (dear show: do more of this), she absolutely kills.

Christian Kane, light-years from his days as that evil lawyer dude on Angel, plays Eliot the muscle as a delightful mix of country-boy charm and unexpected urbanity. For someone who's so very, very good at hurting people, Eliot's a surprisingly likeable guy -- perhaps because he takes only so much pleasure on doling out the violence. Also? He's a hell of a cook.

Aldis Hodge, previously seen on Friday Night Lights, could almost be an aggravating stereotype as Hardison the hacker, an apparent graduate from the Eddie Murphy When He Was Still Funny School of Smooth-Talking Comic Deceit. But Hodge brings real sweetness and charm to the role, especially during the scam in which he manages to insinuate himself into an office full of burnt-out paper pushers, throw himself a birthday party, give a major presentation, and get dramatically fired all in a single afternoon.

And last but not least, there's what comic book nerds like me would refer to as the Sensational Character Find of 2008: Beth "Mrs. Jason Lee" Riesgraf as Parker the thief. A sweetly amoral cat burglar extraordinaire, Parker has the manners and mannerisms of a vaguely homicidal eight-year-old. She's one of the most gloriously, vividly weird characters in TV drama today, and her penchant for getting basic-cable naked at the drop of a hat doesn't exactly make her less endearing. (Thanks to reader Julie for restoring my faith in a higher power, by assuring me that Ms. Riesgraf is not, and has never been, married to the star of two, count 'em, two live-action Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. Somewhere, the j-school professors who drilled me on fact-checking are shaking their heads sadly.)

The characters alone would make Leverage worth watching, but the show's writers also do a top-notch job of cooking up great, twisty, disaster-packed capers for them to pull off. From carrying out a sting in the midst of a bank robbery, to thwarting an airline bombing while in midair on the plane in question, to successfully planning, catering, and officiating a wedding for a Mafia don, the show's plots take considerable glee in going places you'd never expect.

(I only wish the show's heavies were equally unpredictable. The writers supposedly conduct extensive research on real corporate crime in cooking up their plots, but the bad guys too often come off as one-dimensional stock scumbags. If a villain were to, say, hustle orphans onto a dynamite-packed bus headed off the edge of the Grand Canyon, he or she would not come across as the most implausible antagonist in the series' history. Ah, well. It's still fun to watch these creeps get their comeuppance.)

And just when you think Leverage is all light, frothy fun, you suddenly begin to realize that Nate Ford always, always has a drink in his hand. And when you've successfully rationalized that he's got his drinking managed, all of a sudden he's locked in rehab as part of a con, and he's gone 24 hours without a drink, and he's sweating and hallucinating and screaming at his teammates. And even when that ordeal's over, he still can't admit he's got a problem; he's right back to being blithe and charming and lying to himself, even when he admits that his grandfather and father before him were alcoholics, that he can handle it. And suddenly, someone's pulled the emergency brake on the Fun Train.

Booze has Nate by the throat, and the subtlety with which Leverage handles this elevates it from a merely fun show to a truly good one. Hutton and the writers take pains to avoid making Nate some staggering, disheveled caricature. His disease is quieter, more insidious, and as a result, genuinely disturbing. Kudos to Rogers and co-creator Chris Downey for spiking such a truly fun and joyful show with this jolt of real darkness.

After mere months off the air, Leverage returns Wednesday, July 15 for its second season. If you like being mightily entertained, and maybe just a little unsettled, steal some time to check it out.

5 Comments

Is this the same John Rogers behind the attempt at Global Frequency a few years back? I miss that show, and now I must get caught up in Leverage.

Shall I restore your faith in God? Riesgraf is not now nor never was married to Jason Lee though she did give birth to the infamously named Pilot Inspektor. Lee is married to some model or something with whom he has another child.

Never seen it. And, yes, I am a Communist. What of it?

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