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The Application of Force: An Early Look at TNT's "Leverage"

TNT's new drama Leverage has a winning premise: a good guy, betrayed by the company that employed him to capture criminals, puts together a team of baddies to rob from the rich and give to the poor, providing, as we're told in the epilogue, "leverage."

However, the series--from creators John Rogers and Dean Devlin--fails to live up to the promise of its premise, due to some muddying of its tone, a general flatness, and a lack of compelling humor and action. When faced with a series like NBC's Chuck, which does both well and in abundance on a weekly basis, Leverage seems like a tired rehash of action elements from the 1980s and lacks an overall freshness.

I had seen an early cut of the pilot back in the spring and little had changed between that rough cut and the finished product, one of two episodes supplied for review. In fact, the pilot ("The Nigerian Job")--which I only moderately liked at best--is far superior to the series' second episode ("The Homecoming Job"), which manages to be both predictable, ludicrous, and overly sentimental, none of which is particularly good for an action dramedy such as this.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Leverage seems to take a page from the book of 1971 action series The Persuaders, which featured two baddies (played by Roger Moore and Tony Curtis) forced to walk on the side of the angels. In this case, the criminals-turned-heroes are all thieves and con men assembled by former insurance investigator Nate Ford (Kidnapped's Timothy Hutton), who at one time or another worked to catch each of these operators. After Ford's son dies because the insurance company won't pony up the cash for an experimental treatment, Ford is hired by an aviation executive (guest star Saul Rubinek) to steal back designs that he claims were stolen from him by a rival firm... and placed on a team with those aforementioned crooks as the only honest man on a team of cheaters and liars.

Those thieves are, of course, a motley bunch. There's expert thief Parker (My Name is Earl's Beth Riesgraf), whose daring is exceeded only by her insanity; tech genius and geek king Alec Hardison (Friday Night Lights' Aldis Hodge); "retrieval specialist" Eliot Spencer (Angel's Christian Kane) who moves like the wind and can name a bullet caliber by the sound it makes; and con artist extraordinaire Sophie Devereaux (Coupling's Gina Bellman). None of them are particularly pleased to be working with Ford and none of them function well as a team, to say the least. But when they're double-crossed, they are forced to work together to get even.

The problems I had with Leverage weren't so much from the actors. In particular, I thought that Hutton and Bellman were fantastic and had a palpable chemistry together. Personally, I'd watch Bellman--who co-starred last year in BBC's Jekyll--read the phone book. (Hell, I even went so far as to nominate Bellman as one possible replacement for David Tennant on Doctor Who.) Her Sophie Devereaux is one of the more interesting characters on the series, a grifter with a shared past with Hutton's Nate Ford who dreams of becoming a legitmate actress but finds that the legit stage can't compete with the roles she plays in pursuit of crime. And Hutton's Ford seems like a man pushed over the brink into a neverending cycle of despair. After a lifetime of doing the right thing, he's lost his wife and son and any semblance of a normal life; he's turning to a life of crime in order to enact his own brand of justice for the little guy.

No, the problems I had (besides for Christian Kane's lanky, greasy hair, which irked to no end), were in the script stage. The series should be a hell of a lot smarter and far wittier than it is. While there's an obvious attempt to include humor here (rather than just make it an action-adventure yarn), most of the laughs fall flat and are far too telegraphed to make any real impact. Alec getting ribbed for living with his mother? Yawn. Sophie takes an audition for a soap commercial far too seriously? Double yawn. (Besides, David Cross' Tobias Funke did that far better with a fire sale audition years ago on Arrested Development.)

As for the plots of the first two episodes of Leverage, there's the expected number of double-crosses, betrayals, bizarro plot points (how does a military hospital accept stacks of stolen cash without attacting suspicion?), and bait-and-switches but without the energy or excitement of the aforementioned The Persuaders. While Danny Wilde and Lord Brett Sinclair lived the good life like high-flying playboys, the hero of Leverage seems destined to remain drinking alone in the dark. While death and divorce might make for a better backstory, it doesn't make us want to spend much time with Nate Ford, much less want to be him. And at the end of the day, isn't that usually the beauty of such escapist fare such as this?

Leverage premieres Sunday, December 7th at 10 pm ET/PT on TNT.

Comments

Too bad. This show has a great cast and a great concept but the writing is just not good enough to support either. It needs to be much sharper and more Oceans Eleven rather than Touched by an Angel.
Anonymous said…
Doesn't Matthew Bomer of Chuck fame have a similar show coming out?

Old Darth
Jace Lacob said…
Old Darth, you're speaking about USA's "White Collar," no? It's slightly similar but the premises are different. In the case of White Collar, Matthew Bomer plays an art thief/grifter who is caught by an FBI agent on his tail after several years and, rather than receive a hefty prison term, cuts a deal that forces him to work alongside the agent (Tim DeKay) who put him away. Not a fan of either.
Anonymous said…
Fan of either show I take it?

Old Darth
R.A. Porter said…
Jace, you know I disagreed with you about this in my review, so we're coming from two different perspectives, but I'm shocked you have nothing to say about Aldis Hodge's performance. While the plot twists are predictable - I haven't plotted it out yet to be sure, but I believe each of the episodes I've seen follow the same pattern with the act outs - I'm really enjoying the characters, particularly Hodge's uber-geek.

As charismatic as he was on FNL, I think he's even better here.
Anonymous said…
This sounds pretty bad, IMHO. I like Bellman but not enough to watch. Sounds like a inflight movie.
Anonymous said…
Agreed the first episode is the better than any other so far. And for m, the shows reminds me of THE A-TEAM.

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