If you've been keeping count, you might think that "The Experimental Job" marks the beginning of the fifth season of Leverage. In fact, it marks the beginning of the second half, or the "winter" installment, of Leverage's fourth season, which began last July, and ran for ten episodes. Just a few weeks ago, network shows such as The Vampire Diaries were signing off with the announcement that what we'd just seen was their "mid-season finale", as opposed to the old days, when it was all one ongoing season, but around Christmas break, you learned to psyche yourself up for a buttload of reruns. I don't know when this new tradition started where basic cable shows like Burn Notice and Leverage split their seasons up into thick, grabby handfuls of episodes that are spread out with months between them. But Leverage is definitely a show that benefits from it.
The show is simply meat-and-potatoes formula entertainment, and while that sort of thing can be well done or not so well done, I know that, when the fourth season began last July, I was especially open to spending an hour every week deciding which side of the scale the show fell on week to week, because it was starting to get too hot to go outside. By the time that season wrapped up, August was winding down, fall was beckoning, and the show was in danger of beginning to look like relatives who've been sleeping in the guest bedroom too many weeks while waiting for their FEMA trailer to be ready, Now, it's starting to get cold and damp outside, and the show is back, suddenly looking as welcome as the news that the parole board okayed my mother's release, and I don't even have to be the one to pick her up at the bus depot.
When I call the show formulaic, a term that's practically a synonym for "hour-long basic cable show" by now, I do not mean it as an insult. It does mean that making a better-than-average episode of Leverage can seem to come down to doing the math right. It helps if the victims whose suffering is being avenged by our heroes are blameless enough that our blood will boil on their behalf, but it also helps if the show doesn't feel as if it's leaning on us with both elbows, and if Nate's self-righteous speeches about trying to get a little justice for the little guy in a society where the big guys all get away with murder are kept to a minimum. It's also nice if everyone in the cast gets something to do that is in keeping both with their talents and the amount of screen time you'd like to see devoted to them. One reason that tonight's mid-season premiere works like a son of a bitch is that all the regulars get to strut their stuff except for Gina Bellman, and while I have nothing against Gina Bellman, experience has taught me that she's the one here who I'm going to miss the least if she has nothing to do over the course of an hour except stand next to a cop who is introducing some sleazeball's face to what looks like a mighty hard wall.
At first, when the camera hovers above a gray-haired old coot who's losing it while trapped inside what looks like a makeshift prison cell, I thought the show had decided to rip off Oldboy and see if anybody noticed. Instead, the episode rips off every urban myth, fact-based and otherwise, about sadistic scientific experiments conducted on college campuses, and has a fun time doing it. The old coot, who dies after being turned loose by his tormentors, turns out to be a homeless man who was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—"Just a little something to remember Vietnam by," as his daughter puts it. He'd been made even worse after serving as a guinea pig for a series of experiments conducted by the 22-year-old campus Mengele, Travis Zilgram, played by Jonathan Keltz, an actor who is exceptionally well versed in the art of projecting smarminess. (Admiring the cut of Hardison's jib, he tells him, "You're some kind of genius, right? That's cool. I'm super-rich!") It's quickly established that Zilgram is a stand-in for all the callous sons of privilege who prey on those less fortunate, which is not to say that, even in a crowd of moral plug-uglies, he doesn't stand out a bit. Explaining to someone on his team how he has been able to persuade so many people to agree to be locked up in a freezing room the size of a closet and listen to "Ride of the Valkyries" piped in at sonic-boom volume, he says, "When you're homeless and hungry, you'll do anything for thirty bucks a day." Then he and the person he's talking to share a little laugh, just in case anyone watching is still on the fence about whether or not these folks are likable.
At first, Nate and his friends aren't sure there's anything they can do here, but then the daughter says, "I thought what you guys did was help people when nobody else would." That's enough to shake their reluctance a little, and the sad piano music that immediately kicks in is all it takes to shove them over the edge. They proceed with the help of a woman cop who tells them, "In this country, power trumps justice every time," and, regarding the dead Vietnam vet, "A rookie on his first day could have told you that body was dumped, and generally, people don't move a body unless they've got something to hide." Eliot's response to all this was to ask, "What if I wanted to get to know you better?" This bewildered me, since I can't imagine why anyone would want to know anyone who talked like that better, especially someone who already gets an earful of that sort of thing from Nate. But then it turned out that this was just a weird way of giving the cop an excuse to imply that she was a lesbian. I'm not sure that qualifies as deepening the characterization, but the cop didn't have a lot else to do in the episode, and anyway, she won me over when she contributed to a pretend police interrogation room the gang had set up by throwing her coffee on the wall, for authenticity's sake.
To the surprise of no one, Eliot posed as a homeless mystery-man tough guy and went undercover as one of the test subjects. From this vantage point, he was able to discover that Zilgram was working with a rogue CIA boss to develop more effective ways of screwing with people's minds and emotions as an interrogation technique—that, as Eliot put it, they were using a project intended to help people with PTSD as a cover while actually trying to perfect ways to give people PTSD. I'm not sure that Richard Condon would be embarrassed to have come up with a plot device like that. The really cool thing about it, of course, was that it gave an opportunity for scenes in which Eliot, sitting across the desk from a professional interrogator, managed to scare the hell out of the interrogator, instead of the other way around. (Early on, the interrogator assured Eliot that he had no interest in the use of torture, since it never works; later, when it was time to bust out of the joint and the interrogator had information that the team needed, Eliot got to set up his ass-whupping by telling him, "I've got four minutes to prove your theory wrong.")
I like Timothy Hutton, but as Nate Ford, he's always well-advised to leave 'em wanting more than to allow himself to be seen trying to carry the show. This episode used him just right, with a tweedy-professor impersonation scene and a climactic image of him standing behind a one-way mirror, watching the bad guy crack, that encapsulated everything the show wants to say about the hero as a puppet master who reserves his compassion for those he thinks need it; it was worth a hundred of those stop-the-presses! speeches he's been known to deliver, when the show is at low ebb. The other obvious reason that this was the best episode of Leverage in a long while is that it gave both Beth Riesgraf and Aldis Hodge plenty of room to play, while being fairly upfront and direct about Parker's and Hardison's feelings for each other. (At the climax, he got in trouble with the villains after the two of them had a fight, so of course, they got to make up in the time-honored fashion of having her rush in to kick the hell out of the thugs who were kicking the hell out of her boyfriend.)
Hardison's role in the con called for him to charm the bad guy with his brains and nerve, which, as he pointed out, meant that he had to basically impersonate himself, except "cooler." Naturally, he was uncertain about his own ability to pull this off. Parker gave him a pep talk that went, "Remember when you took the thing with the glowing thingie and then you used it to kill the guy who was on the shiny stuff, and then, also, there was all this magic? That was so cool!" She was referring to his prowess at video games, but it was also a better review of a good Leverage episode than I'm ever likely to write.
- Parker did have other notable lines. Flirting with a jock who told her that his number was 42, she burst out, "That's the number of days I've been off my meds!" I also liked the scene where she was escorted out of a building after participating in an experiment where she'd abused her privilege to apply electric shocks to a test subject. She protested by yelling something that, if I'm reading my notes right, sounded like, "Attica! Ten Pez a night! Stupid good food!"
- Eliot's Areas of Expertise, Part I: Reporting from on site, Hardison says into a microphone to he hears a "whump-whump noise." Back at the office, Eliot excitedly demands to know "what kind" of whump-whump noise it is. Hardison is perplexed; how many different kinds of whump-whump noises are there supposed to be? Eliot: "There's seven!"
- Eliot's Areas of Expertise, Part II: The whump-whump noise turns out to herald the arrival of the bad guy's CIA connection, via helicopter. This is how Eliot knows that the guy is from high up in the food chain: "There aren't that many people anymore in the CIA who rate helo transport." This is the kind of telling detail about budget cutbacks in the intelligence agencies that you won't learn just by watching CNN.