Leverage is some of the best junk food TV going.
By and large, I mean this as a compliment. There are very few shows on the air that you can turn on and completely turn your brain off to and still have a good time. Leverage almost never engages me on a level beyond thinking it’s a cool show, but sometimes that’s all you need. It’s almost always zippily paced and amusingly acted and nicely directed. The overwhelming sense one gets while watching it is of a bunch of people who are utter professionals at their job and want nothing more than to give us a good time. Just because it doesn’t aim exceptionally higher than that doesn’t mean it’s a bad show. Really, the bar we should judge shows like Leverage by is how entertaining they are, and by almost any measure, I’d say season three was the most entertaining season of Leverage yet.
To a degree, Leverage is one of those shows you can let pile up on the DVR for a few weeks, then plow off four or five episodes in a row on a rainy afternoon. (I actually forgot to record last week’s Christmas con episode, and I was surprised I was disappointed at missing it.) The show is formulaic to a fault, yes, and it seems as uneasy about breaking that formula as any other light cable procedural (something we’ll get to in a moment), but there’s something very comforting about the formula all the same. There’s something to be said for going along with a show like this and trying to figure out, say, how all of the people on Nathan Ford’s team will end up incorporated into the grand master plan or trying to figure out which bits of obscure wisdom creators Chris Downey and John Rogers and their writers will try to cram into our brains this week.
The problem always comes, I think, when I try to pay too much attention to Leverage. Watched while doing something else or while not really paying attention, the show goes down easily. But when I actually focus on it, I start to realize all of the little things that don’t work quite right, the little things that might elevate the show from pretty enjoyable to reliably escapist. I keep expecting Leverage to have a big step up at some point, like a lot of these light action shows did in their second or third seasons, but it mostly seems content to truck along in the little groove it’s built for itself. There’s not really anything wrong with that, but it does limit the amount of stuff there is to say about it. In fact, I deleted several paragraphs because they were pretty much verbatim what I said about this show last year. I still think the stakes of the show are too low, and even when the show TRIES to up the stakes, by bringing in a big bad or something, there’s never any real danger in the series’ world.
Let’s introduce exhibit A for this case, in the form of dastardly villain Moreau, who turns out to be played by Goran Visnijic, the Croatian wonder boy who replaced George Clooney on ER and has turned up in a few interesting independent films over the years as well. As it turns out, Visnijic isn’t the best at playing “menacing,” so he mostly settles for just playing Moreau as a variation on the kinds of good guys he usually plays. I’m sure all involved were hoping this would be a big, clarifying arc for the characters, but a lot of it doesn’t quite work, and I think Visnijic’s the main part of this problem. There are good moments for the character, but he just seems like a fairly stereotypically baddie, right down to the bevy of bikini girls around him, while Visnijic mostly plays him with a big, tossed-off shrug.
So while I wasn’t horribly enamored of the first episode tonight (though I did like the scene where Hardison nearly drowned at the bottom of a pool while Eliot acted like it was no big deal), I could chalk a lot of that up to Visnijic. At its best, as it often was this season, Leverage provides some fun circumstances for the cast to prance in and out of, and if the bad guy’s a little poorly conceived, well, it sometimes doesn’t matter. I also like the show’s sense of offering a bit of knowledge in every episode, even if it’s completely made up. For example, the bit about who could request to see a classified facility at the drop of the hat was intriguing, even if it’s completely made up (the show SEEMS impeccably researched, so I tend to give it the benefit of the doubt), and in the second hour, the thoughts on modern elections and Internet momentum also had some food for thought.
In general, I preferred hour two, even if I wished there had been something like real consequence or a sense of the moral complexity the gang was indulging in by subverting democracy (even in a corrupt, apparent banana republic). To really dig into this idea would require going against the breezy, jaunty tone, and while I sense that TNT and the show’s producers don’t want to do that, it also seems like the writers and actors on the show would be capable of pushing for more. (If you’ve ever read Rogers’ blog, he’s a ridiculously smart and funny guy, and I’d kill to see more of his unhinged voice on this show.) There’s nothing WRONG with this, but it just doesn’t aim high enough to be consistently involving. So what you’re left with is something mildly entertaining but not trying to be much more.
Naturally, then, the show finds its depth in the character interplay, or at least tries to. As such, the finale closes with two characters who’ve long been heading toward bed ending up in bed together, and while it’s a not-completely-unexpected twist, it’s also the sort of thing that might have happened on an ‘80s action drama. Leverage doesn’t push farther because it figures it can coast on the easy charisma of its cast (and the flamboyant hats Timothy Hutton wears), and the dynamics it’s built between the actors are solid, if not transcendent. There’s a way to do this kind of light, character-based drama well and still have standalone episodes, and Leverage, again, hasn’t quite mastered that leap. (I feel like I’m using “quite” more than any word I’ve ever used ever in this piece, but, hey, that’s the general sense Leverage always leaves me with.) The cast (outside of Christian Kane, who’s paradoxically gotten less believable to me as a badass as the show’s gone along, though I realize I’m virtually alone in this opinion) smirks their way through the material, and Beth Riesgraf is always a lot of fun with her daft line readings, while Aldis Hodge adds a touch of amusement around the edges. It’s fun, but it’s not really trying to be anything but fun.
So, ultimately, we come down to the idea of what it is that we watch TV for. In general, I like to watch shows that strive for something, even if they ultimately fall apart at the end. Leverage, while perfectly entertaining and enjoyable in many ways, is never really going to push for much more than what it already does fairly well. It’s content to be a B-show, and it’s never really going to want to be anything but a B-show. And that’s fine. Not every series can be Mad Men or Breaking Bad. We need shows like this, and I’d argue this season of Leverage was probably more consistent than just about any other show in its weight class on the air right now. But what’s most frustrating about it is that, unlike, say, Covert Affairs, where you see Piper Perabo on the poster and pretty much know what you’re gonna get, everybody in Leverage seems like they could do so much better, yet they’re content to coast.