The Modest Pleasures of Leverage

February 19, 2013


Leverage is the kind of modern show that people who don’t like modern television tend to like.  It’s old-fashioned: formulaic, familiar, minimally serialized.  It’s a genre show – a weekly caper, Mission: Impossible retrofitted for an era where capitalists, not communists, are the bad guys.  Usually I hate contemporary TV shows that try to be like old TV shows.  But Leverage is special.  It’s a lot of fun.  And it kept getting better as it went along – I have to switch to the past tense now, because its cancellation was announced while I noodled with this piece.

The heroes of Leverage are a quintet of criminals who do the Robin Hood bit: they use their skills to avenge the little guys who have been wronged, usually by some legally untouchable corporate fatcat.  It’s a show about the 47% versus the 1%, and although its politics are smart and topical, it doesn’t ram them down the viewer’s throat.  The secret to Leverage is that although the plots are intricate, the show is – in a way that Mission: Impossible always resisted – totally character-driven.  The leader of the gang, Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton), is a former insurance investigator driven toward vengeance by the death of his son at the hands of, yes, his corrupt employer.  His team is composed of likable misfits, each with a useful set of skills: actress/grifter Sophie (Gina Bellman), who has an (initially) unrequited affection for Nate; computer hacker Hardison (Aldis Hodge), a fast-talking nerd; muscle man Eliot (Christian Kane), who has rage issues; and thief/pickpocket Parker (Beth Riesgraf), a blithely adorable sociopath.


Although Nate remains a moody, tormented soul, Leverage is essentially light-hearted.  A breezy, improvisational performance style shifts the show away from its angry center, and makes it more of a romp.  The actors are all winners, complementing each other in a way that reminds me of the original C.S.I. ensemble.  Their camaraderie is joyous – it’s clear that both the actors and their characters are having the time of their lives.  It’s touching to see these misfits form a makeshift family, even as the actors are shrewd enough to remind us it’s a dysfunctional one.  Kane, in particular, has a compact, subtly Southern, and very authentic sense of tightly contained violence, and yet it informs a funny kind of comic timing.  Particularly during Eliot’s banter with Hardison, whose geekiness drives him up the wall, Kane’s short-fuse is hilarious.  Riesgraf, too, never lets go of her character’s fundamental oddness.  She’s like a robot learning how to be human.


When good actors get the chance to build their characters from the ground up, and stay true to them over the course of a long-running show, magic happens.  By the fourth season, some of the characters have coupled romantically in ways that are touching (and also plausible, unlike some of the “shipping” on C.S.I.).  Nate’s functional alcoholism remains a fascinatingly unresolved issue.  Just the fact that Leverage doesn’t feel the need to scold or cure him is itself impressive, but the way the other characters dance around it, how they have to find ways to deal with their concern and cover for their leader’s shortcomings without trying to fix him, adds a layer of uneasy tension.  A lot of good shows wither because the writers can’t generate realistic conflicts between the main characters – famously, Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that everyone on a 23rd century starship should get along swimmingly drove the writers of Star Trek nuts.  On Leverage, the five protagonists have needs and values that are varied and clearly demarcated, so conflicts arise organically.  While it’s impossible not to root for the bonds between these vulnerable people to last, there’s a constant awareness that they’re all fundamentally loners, that they could fall out and go their separate ways if things really went sideways.

(The brains behind the show are writers Dean Devlin, John Rogers, and Chris Downey.)

Leverage’s episode orders approached network-size – eighteen in the fourth season – and that was probably too many.  Each season had its share of filler – Leverage goes to Nashville!  Leverage goes to coal country! – and there was the occasional ambitious flop. The half-century-spanning lost-loot mystery “The Van Gogh Job” fails because guest star Danny Glover is thirty years too young to play a World War II veteran.  But the best episodes, particularly towards the end of the run, were crafted to fit the characters’ skills and vulnerabilities like a glove.  “The Cross My Heart Job” glances off Nate’s buried grief for his son; it’s guaranteed that he’ll plunge the team into a twisty spur-of-the-moment airport heist to intercept a cooler carrying a purloined heart to a dying robber baron.  “The Gold Job” explores Hardison’s resentment over being taken for granted and puts him in charge of a con for the first time; the outcome depends on whether control freak Nate will undermine or support his colleague.  “The Radio Job,” a nifty locked-room con with the unlikely setting of the U.S. Patent Office, brings back Nate’s kryptonite, his low-life petty criminal father (Tom Skerritt), and again divides the team leader’s loyalties as their gambits cross purposes.  The fourth-year finale goes a bit astray, indulging in a macabre climax that discards the team’s moral code too cavalierly.  But how can you quibble with a television hour that unites the great character actors Leon Rippy and Saul Rubinek (below) in chortling villainy?

Rippy Rubinek

Then there’s “The Office Job,” which is one of the most complex and rewarding television episodes I’ve come across during the present decade.  In it, Nate and Co. infiltrate a greeting card company, the cubicle-farm headquarters of which is also being filmed by a documentary crew.  “The Office Job” is a double parody, of both the comedy series The Office (a joke everyone will get) and the ouevre of the gloomy German filmmaker Werner Herzog (one for the cognoscenti, even though Herzog is a star of the art cinema world).  At first the Herzog spoof seems one-note – Peter Stormare’s performance is unsubtle – but once the bombastic director is drawn in as a confederate, the show has fun with his childlike enthusiasm for the con.  With regard to The Office, Leverage mocks not only its content but its form.  Just as we, along with Nate and company, realize that Stormare’s crew is recording everything, “The Office Job” switches from the expected filmic grammar to the handheld video aesthetic of a single-camera sitcom.  It’s a jarring, daring cut – one of the ballsiest edits in the history of television.


Mockumentary becomes a strange and somehow newly urgent way to frame a Leverage caper.  The gag pays off over and over again, as the crew suddenly has to grapple with the constant presence of a snooping cameraman while they carry out a con.  The show can make stylistic leaps like this because it has that bedrock of well-defined characters, all of whom reveal new aspects of themselves in response to the new stimuli.  Parker’s inability to understand metaphor, for instance, sets up funny gags in which the others’ efforts to talk in code while on camera fail completely.  The direct-address segments – in which the Leverage characters, like their counterparts on The Office, comment upon the events taking place – morph from snark into something really startling, as Nate and Sophie air some raw, nasty gripes about each other.  It’s a bracing, uneasy payoff to a simmering resentment that has festered throughout the season, and a reminder of how rarely TV shows are willing to present their popular characters in a truly unfavorable light.



35 Responses to “The Modest Pleasures of Leverage”

  1. Todd Mason Says:

    I’ll miss it…though I wasn’t a consistent viewer, I am a consistent fan of Bellman’s work, and have certainly tended to like Hutton’s projects at least since NERO WOLFE.

    • Kay Lohman Says:

      I started watching Leverage from the first episode. It was by chance. I forgot to change the channel and was hooked by the first commercial break!!! Being I’m a creature of habit…I always watched the same thing week in and week out!!! I started raving about this “weird” new show and had a group of loyal viewers before season 1 was over!!! Then I found the internet!!! I was pleasantly surprised that it had such a vast fan base!!! Some shows run out of “new info” but with great writing and producing this show should have went on for several more seasons. What ticked me off as a fan, was the way the finale was rushed. We found out it was cancelled 5 or 6 episodes before it was yanked off the air. No final season hype or anything!!!! Dean Devlin, Chris Downy, and John Rogers encouraged fan participation, by doing that it made the fans feel important and part of that wonderful family. I truly hope another network picks Leverage up as a seasonal series, if not I will take whatever is offered!!! Ironically the fan base has grown since the cancellation…..umm, how many other shows can say that? Thank you for your nice (could have been better) review. I respect your opinion.

      • Stephen Bowie Says:

        I hope it’s okay if I use “nice (could have been better)” as a pull quote, Kay.

      • Ali Kat Says:

        actually the cancellation announcement was on Friday before Christmas and the finale episode aired on Christmas. So even though the creators wrote the finale to give the fans closure IN CASE they weren’t renewed, there was no notification until that Friday. Even the day of the episode, TNT was running promos saying it was the season finale not the series. While what TNT did was rude and unappreciative of the fans, the creators made the extra effort to have a ‘just in case’ finale. The cast, creators, writers, and crew of Leverage will be completely unforgettable.

        I disagree with your comments about Van Gogh though. I totally bought Danny Glover as a WW2 vet because I didn’t do the math. He was so brilliant – I didn’t care how old he was supposed to be. That episode blew me away. Aldis and Beth were amazing in that!

  2. Lovely piece about a good show that worked its way steadily toward greatness. My only complaint is that there’s no mention of HUSTLE, the British show that LEVERAGE rather shamelessly ripped off at the outset, before gradually finding its own path.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Indeed, the basic premise and even the feel of the two shows is quite similar (although I’ve only seen the first season, er, “series” of Hustle).

      • HUSTLE is a great show. I would hate to have to choose between it and LEVERAGE.

      • Stephen Bowie Says:

        Like most of the contemporary British crime shows I’ve sampled, it kind of left me cold, apart from Robert Vaughn (who’s a delight). I’ll probably pick up where I left off at some point, though.

      • I admit to being, generally, a fan of British crime shows. But HUSTLE does warm up. The first season is probably the weakest, though it’s very good. The cast has some ebb and flow (Vaughn always a part of it) and there are interesting interactions between them, some prefiguring LEVERAGE’s similar ones. They quickly begin working out of a bar (sound familiar?) and the final episode breaks the fourth wall in an interesting way that has at least a little similarity to LEVERAGE’s finale.

  3. I’m only halfway through season three but feel like I’m prematurely in mourning for a great little show – really enjoyed this overvieww, and the assessment of Parker as, “She’s like a robot learning how to be human” is spot on!

  4. Loved this.
    Thanks for the Leverage love.

  5. Nona Wallert Says:

    This is a very well written description and positive comment about “Leverage.” Thank you for sharing your thoughts even though the show has been cancelled!

  6. Thanks for an awesome review of my favorite series, Leverage. Still hoping the show continues with all the original cast & writers. They are brillant together and make magic happen in every episode. We need Leverage!!

  7. renpei Says:

    Very Nice Article!
    Also, If you want to bring back leverage, check out:

    Lets steal ourselves a season six

  8. Excellent article Leverage is truly missed and really deserves to come back in some way shape or form. Save Leverage!

  9. Donna Says:

    This was a great article, thanks it is such a shame the network didn’t think it was worthy of keeping it on the air

  10. Ellen Zarnick Says:

    Your article was spot on. I fell in love with the show from the first season and it was a delight to watch the characters grow during the five seasons. I miss it. We (the Leverage fans call themselves Grifters) are hoping that another network picks up our gem and gives us a few more seasons.

  11. Patty Ann Says:

    I’ve been a fan of Leverage since the pilot. It was always a perfect blend of drama, comedy and action. Thanks for the great article on a rare gem of a show that is gone too soon.

  12. kim Says:

    Leverage is an amazing show with a terrific cast that works so well together. I love the interaction between Eliot and Hardison. I would have watched for several more seasons and enjoyed every minute. Maybe some smart new network will pick it up and give us what we all need… LEVERAGE!!

  13. Teddi Says:

    Leverage IS the best! It needs to come back for more seasons. Its too bad the networks don’t realize this!

  14. Ethel Henry Says:

    Great article! You managed to capture the suble aspects of this show that made it so much fun for the long-time fans. The camaraderie, the character development, the dysfunctional family, and the intelligent writing made this one program that I would never miss. Which is why the cancellation was so hurtful, and why I am one of thousands of Grifters fighting to Save Leverage!

  15. Carol Lee Says:

    That was a great article. thanks from all the fans. We miss the team and hope a network picks up Leverage.

  16. Sandy Says:

    This is a great description and positive comment about “Leverage.” Thank you for sharing your thoughts even though the show has been cancelled! As a major Kaniac and Grifter, I am hopeful that the show will be picked up by another network .. a network that knows the value of our Leverage .. along with the fan following and dedication to the show!

  17. Fran Says:

    Love the article…thank you! Your description of Leverage was perfect! A show and cast of this caliber should never have been cancelled!

  18. I would love to see LEVERAGE return, but I commend them for the bow they tied on the series with the final several scenes.

    This is a great cast. A true example of a terrific ensemble.

  19. Stephen Bowie Says:

    I haven’t seen the final season yet, but I have a hunch this is one that went out just when it should have. Even the fourth season finale (in which the show’s very first villain is dealt with conclusively) could’ve ended the series satisfactorily.

  20. lisa-joy prigge Says:

    I so miss my Leverage!!! Have bought Seasons 1-4 and watch them all the time!! Can’t get enough of them. I like, many many other Kaniac’s and Grifter’s hope against hope that Leverage will be picked up by either another network or renewed again by TNT. DAMMIT HARDISON WE NEED TO STEAL A SEASON SIX!!!!!

  21. lisa-joy prigge Says:

    Love your article!!!! Thank you

  22. Sandy Says:

    I found Leverage when I was laid off from work and within 1 second was totally hooked on the show. A family show. A show where each episode was an episode unto itself. A band of grifters and thieves who did good for other people. No graphic violence; nothing obscene; just good scripts; good stories; great actors; great fun; great acting; I can’t say enough about the show I lost. More than anything I want Leverage back .. there is nothing else on TV I’d rather watch and unfortunately there are no re-runs. I do not understand that. But I will wait patiently until Leverage comes back. I wonder how Nate & Sophie’s honeymoon went, and would give anything to know her real name. Dammit Hardison .. can’t you figure that one out!!

  23. Leverage is the MOST ORIGINAL, Creative, exciting show on tv.. hoping another network picks it up as it has LOADS of more story’s to tell… THEY are THE BEST, WRITER, PRODUCERS, DIRECTORS and of course CAST that tv has to offer! want many more YEARS of this awesome show! really need to know more abt ELIOT SPENCER… played by my fav.. CHRISTIAN KANE!

  24. Nona Wallert Says:

    Stephen Bowie: A Kaniac is a fan of Christian Kane aka Eliot Spencer. Christian Kane is not only an actor but also a Country Rock Musician. Check the Urban Dictionary for Kaniac.

  25. BannisP Says:

    This article and these comments are spot on. Leverage continues to be a wonderful show for those of us who continue to watch it via DVD. It is unbelievable how or why a show that just won an award would be cancelled. Furthermore, fans were cheated of the chance to see our favorite cast and crew accept their well-deserved PCA award on TV and not merely a You Tube acceptance. Though the You Tube acceptance was great, the fabulous cast and crew deserved the chance to been seen on the actual award show. Leverage also won the Southern Women Greatest Fandom Poll. As of this post – 6 months later – Leverage continues to win polls and the actors/actresses continue to win contests. As recently as June 1, fans coordinated a June First Job, whereby letters/e-mails were sent to various networks pleading with them to give Leverage another chance. This shows that fans very much want to see a Season 6 of Leverage regardless of the cancellation. With the right promotion and scheduling, the large fan base will show just how great Leverage is! We are still hoping for a Season 6!!!!

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