Judge Cynthia Boris is doing The Reviewer's Job.
Our reviews of Leverage: The Second Season (published May 25th, 2010), Leverage: The Third Season (published June 7th, 2011), and Leverage: The Fourth Season (published August 4th, 2012) are also available.
Get Ready to Get Even
Think The A-Team meets Ocean's Eleven and you've got the premise for this diabolically clever comedic drama from Dean Devlin (Independence Day) and TNT. We're talking Leverage: The First Season on DVD.
Facts of the Case
At one time, Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton, Kidnapped, A Nero Wolfe Mystery) was the best insurance investigator in the business. He was a master at recovering stolen goods, thus saving his bosses millions of dollars in payouts over the years. Unfortunately, the company wasn't interested in returning the favor, allowing Nate's son to die rather than pay for the experimental treatments that might have saved the child.
Crushed by the boy's death, Nate crawled into a bottle, which led to his divorce and finally, his inability to keep a job. Enter Victor Dubenich (Saul Rubinek, Warehouse 13). Dubenich wants to hire Nate to steal back stolen research from a rival corporation—a corporation insured by the same company that screwed Nate over. Unable to resist the offer, Nate goes to the very best, the thieves and grifters he's spent his whole life chasing. He hires cat burglar Parker (Beth Riesgraf), hacker Hardison (Aldis Hodge, Supernatural), and "recovery specialist" Elliott (Christian Kane, Angel). They make quick work of stealing the research then destroying the computer copies, but once the job is done they realize they've been double-crossed and that makes them all very angry. We like this team, when they get angry.
Now it's time for Nate to pull a con of his own. He brings in the final team member, grafter Sophie (Gina Bellman, Coupling) and it's payback time. When all is said and done, this team of misfits finds that there's a certain joy in justice, so they decide to put their combined talents to work for the good of common man. Because all you need when fighting a corporate giant is just a little leverage.
When TNT began promoting Leverage, it played as Ocean's Eleven for TV, but it's really more like a modern A-Team. Each episode is devoted to a new con that has Nate and the team pretending to be everything from FBI agents to priests to caterers at a mob wedding. The modern spin is that these cons are very complex and the solutions often lie in a high tech response to a very basic problem. Identities are stolen, safes are cracked, documents are forged, and it's all in the name of justice for the little guy.
The joy of Leverage comes from watching the plan come together. How do you get a crooked contractor to sign over the house he just stole to the people he stole it from? You simply pretend you're building a ski resort then fake an insurance scam, convince the mark Parker has a brain tumor, make two brothers suspicious of each other, then switch the legal documents at the bank, causing them to sign over everything to Nate who can then do what he wants with the assets. Like candy from a baby.
I'll give you that there are moments in the show that make you say, no way, but the writers assure us in the commentary, that (almost) everything they do is actually possible. They've gone so far as to recreate certain moments, such as sending a fake ID fax from a cell phone, just to prove the validity to the network who didn't believe them either.
One of the reasons the show works is because they have an expert in cons on their side who is not to be believed. I stood toe-to-toe with him and didn't see him steal my friend's watch, which turned up on his wrist. Apparently Beth Riesgraf, who plays Parker, learned her lessons so well, everyone checks their pockets whenever she leaves a room.
But even the cleverest con wouldn't be enough to keep you coming back every week if the characters weren't likeable, and that's a real danger when you're doing a show about thieves. Not a problem on this series. Even though they're crooks, these five are oddly relatable. Parker has social issues, which always has her saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Elliot likes to punch things when he gets frustrated. Hardison is an often-overlooked nerd and even the lovely Sophie is plagued by a dream that's always out of reach. And Nate, he's the epitome of "when bad things happen to good people," and you just want to fix him but you can't.
Both on camera and off, this group has chemistry, and who knew they were all so funny. Even the producers didn't know Aldis Hodge was such a gem before they cast him, but his ad libs are some of the funniest bits in the series. You'll see several of his bits that didn't make the final cut in the deleted scenes on this DVD.
The DVD also contains a couple of fun featurettes that are so very Leverage. "Anatomy of a Stunt Fight" is a very candid look at Christian Kane working out a fight scene with a buddy. It's very raw and you feel like you're right there watching it happen. "Leverage: Behind the Scenes" is a little more tailored. I believe this was a pre-promo for the show with actor and crew interviews intercut with behind the scenes action. It's a nice introduction to the series. "The Cameras of Leverage" might only excite production geeks like me but I loved this short look at the unusual camera work that is the show's signature.
Then there are two very unusual featurettes. One is a video of the meeting where they told the cast they were renewed for a new season. Doesn't sound exciting but you have to see how they work it out since not all of the cast are in LA at the time. It's very high tech and very Leverage. The last featurette is a strange improv comedy bit with Beth Riesgraf talking to the writers and producers about her role on the show. Parker becomes half shark—"Sharker." It's weirdly funny.
Though it's not listed on the box, there are commentaries on this DVD. As a matter of fact, every episode has one, and they are worth listening to. Dean Devlin, Chris Downey, and John Rogers are joined by the episode's writer and director, and they hand out detail after detail. Their behind the scenes stories are not to be believed. From the jerry-rigged way they had to film certain scenes to the quirks and perks of the actors. Loved the story about how Chris Kane showed up bruised and bloodied and not from a stunt he did on the show. Informative and enjoyable—the true hallmark of a great commentary track.
Now here's a closer look at the episodes that make up this first season.
Best Bits: Elliott as the computer nerd and Parker taking Sophie for a "ride."
• "The Homecoming Job"—The team sets out to help a young soldier who was shot while in Iraq but not by enemy forces. It's a complex tale about civilian security contractors, bribery, political misconduct, and money, money, money. There are a lot of great moments in the episode, but overall I found it hard to follow.
Best Bits: Aldis Hodge ad libbing his way through five takes (watch the deleted scenes) when the bad guys tell him to open the truck that SHOULD be full of money, but isn't—or is it?
• "The Wedding Job"—This truly comic episode has the gang working as wedding planners for the mob. Dan Lauria and Nicole Sullivan play the parents of the bride and Nicole in particular, steals the show. The episode was directed by Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and he makes great use of everyone's individual comedic talents. A favorite.
Best Bits: Parker and the ugly bridesmaid's dress, and Elliott cooking and fighting in the kitchen. It's the lemon juice that makes all the difference.
• "The Snow Job"—This one, not so much. The team goes after a crooked contractor who scammed a National Guardsman out of his home. The original con involves getting one son of the contractor to go in on a fake ski resort, but Nate switches the game halfway through the con, much to the chagrin of the others. It's a slow moving episode that is more about Nate's drinking and his relationship to Sophie than about the con. On the up side, it's a mini Joss Whedon marathon with guest stars Danny Strong (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Sam Anderson (Angel) playing along with Christian Kane.
• "The Mile High Job"—Now on this one, the joy is in the tiny details. The victim here is a couple who lost their daughter due to toxic chemicals in a fertilizer. The team (minus Hardison) goes to investigate and finds evidence of a "smoking gun" that would prove the CEO knew he had a potentially lethal product. Problem? The evidence is headed to the Caymen Islands, so Sophie, Nate, Parker, and Elliott scam their way on to the flight in order to find the evidence before it can be destroyed. But like all good Leverage episodes, this one takes a 90-degree turn leaving all of our heroes in mortal danger and Hardison is the only one who can get them out.
Best Bits: Nate rattles off a list of fake IDs, all of which are the names of the actors who played Doctor Who and Hardison playing office politics—so funny and yet so real.
• "The Miracle Job"—Nate comes to the aid of his childhood friend, a priest whose church is about to be closed down due to the lack of funds. With a real estate developer offering to buy the land, the gang has to come up with something more persuasive than money. What they need is a miracle, so they create one and soon find themselves in the middle of a media circus that is spiraling out of control. This is an excellent episode that takes a hard look at the team's usual standpoint of "the ends justify the means."
Best Bits: Elliot teaches Hardison a few lessons in gun control and Nate's final moments in the church are a real heartbreaker.
• "The Two-Horse Job"—Two complications get in the way of a plot to get a racehorse away from a crook. One is Elliot's ex-fiancée who is the daughter of the client and the second is Nate's former rival, Sterling, who is likely to blow the whole scam.
Best Bits: The poker game!
• "The Bank Shot Job"—This is an unusual one in that we come into the story with the scam already in progress. Nate and Sophie are inside a bank, pulling a con on a very unlikable villain (played against type by Michael O'Neill, West Wing). One problem, two gunmen decide to rob the bank in the middle of the job and suddenly it's up to Hardison, Parker, and Elliot to come up with and execute a plan.
Best Bits: Another inventive Elliot fight scene, and the moment where this whole gig really goes sideways.
• "The Stork Job"—In an unusually heart wrenching and dark plot, the gang goes after a duo who bilks couples out of thousands of dollars by promising to help them adopt an orphan from Serbia. They set out to recover one little boy and find out that the orphan scam is just the tip of this iceberg.
Best Bits: Hardison and Parker have an incredible heart-to-heart, and Sophie gets to act in a bad b-movie.
• "The Juror #6 Job"—Jonathan Frakes directs his Star Trek: The Next Generation co-star Brent Spiner in this story that has the team stealing a jury. Parker is front and center when she's called to jury duty for real but calls for the help of the team when she finds out that the case is rigged in favor of the guilty defendant.
Best Bits: Parker's delight when she realizes that she's made an actual friend and Hardison's final speech to the jury rocks.
• "The 12-Step Job"—Nate's drinking comes into play as he and Parker go undercover at a rehab center in order to recover money stolen from a charity. Though there are some very funny bits, including Hardison and Elliot going all Lethal Weapon, this isn't one of my favorites.
• "The First David Job"
The last two episodes form an arc that takes the series to the end then circles back to where it all began. They filmed this episode before they knew if they had a second season so you'll see several storylines wrapped up in this finale.
The story revolves around an attempt to con the CEO of the insurance company who denied Nate's claim on his son. The very underrated Kevin Tighe plays the target and Kari Matchette guests as Nate's ex-wife. The episode titles refer to a pair of David statues sculpted by Michelangelo. Tighe has one and wants the other, so Nate plans to steal the real one and sell it back as the twin. And it might have worked had it not been for Nate's rival Sterling (from "Two-Horse Job"). With the threat of jail looming large in front of them, Nate gets the reluctant team members to follow through with a twist to the original scam.
An excellent ending to an excellent first season.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For such a terrific show, I wish Paramount had put a little more effort into the packaging. The four discs are packed in a cheap flipcase with the synopsis written on the back of the cover liner. I also found the navigation system to be particularly funky. It was hard to tell if the commentaries were on or off and there were no chapter navigation choices which would really help on a complex series such as this.
Leverage is the perfect blend of action, drama and comedy. The scripts are clever, the characters are charming, and the overall look is as slick as a feature film. But don't think that funny means light. You're going to have to pay close attention, if you want to follow the twists and turns in the cons, but the payoff is always worth it.
This jury finds Leverage: The First Season guilty of theft, fraud,
grand larceny, assault, slander, and a whole host of other charges. The team is
hereby sentenced to do it all over again in Season Two.
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