Coming after last week’s mock-mockumentary episode, tonight’s episode, “The Girls’ Night Out Job,” confirms that, this season, Leverage has gone gimmick-crazy. You will have to seek out a more puritanical believer in the rarefied aesthetic purity of the caper-comedy form than myself if you want an argument about why this is a bad thing. Leverage rises and falls on how clever it is from week to week, and since a good gimmick is clever by definition, I’m all for the show becoming as gimmicky as it can. “The Girls’ Night Out Job”, which is to be followed next week by “The Boys’ Night Out Job”, is about what Sophie and Parker get themselves mixed up in one night, after leaving the guys in their dust. Every once in a while, one of them phones Hardison for some instructions regarding bomb defusing or the use of “that face thing that tells you if people are bad,” which provides an excuse for brief, gonzo glimpses of Hardison and Eliot involved in kind of activity that will presumably be fleshed out in their very special episode. This business of splitting the cast in two might not be the smartest gimmick that Leverage could employ, since the show usually needs to call upon as many resources as it has at its disposal to come up with enough cleverness for a single episode, let alone one episode that’s packaged with a trailer for another.
In the end, the series brings it off pretty well, which is a tribute to Gina Bellman, Beth Riesgraf, and Jeri Ryan, returning as special-guest grifter Tara Cole, the character she played a couple of years ago while filling in during Bellman’s maternity leave. (For the record, I feel weird about using the word “grifter” in any context unrelated to the work of Jim Thompson, but it sometimes feels as if Leverage is committed to wearing down any natural resistance that reasonable people might feel towards the term, in the same way that the writers for NYPD Blue sometimes worked under the assumption that David Milch got a royalty check whenever someone said “skel.”) There’s one glorious shot of the three of them walking toward the camera, side by side by side, that simultaneously recalls the glory days of Sex And The City and makes you realize how much more glorious those days might have been if the actresses looked likely to don skintight black outfits, rappel up the side of a building, and kick somebody’s ass all over their penthouse apartment.
I’d almost forgotten how much Ryan did for this show when she was on it, and she doesn’t just bring out the best in Gina Bellman; the series regular steps up her game almost as if she thought that her job might be in jeopardy if she didn’t keep up with the glamorous alien visitor. It helps that these two are conceived as such contrasting types, and that Bellman’s character doesn’t know it. The two of them are first seen clinking glasses in a swank bar setting, toasting the prospect of what Bellman terms “an evening of unbridled debauchery,” which suits Ryan just fine. Sophie’s sultry delivery makes it clear that she thinks that’s what she’s into herself. But they’re soon sidetracked by a mission that involves some kind of bidding war at “the Venezuelan consulate”, over the secret locations of the country’s oil fields—I know, right, like some classic It Takes A Thief shit. What justifies the whole setup is the moment when the two of them confront a man who, they assume, is toting a briefcase full of cash, like all the other high rollers in the room. No, he says, he doesn’t have any money, but he has something even better that he hopes will impress the people he’s looking to deal with: “The hopes and dreams of the Venezuelan people,” whereupon he pops open his case to reveal a clunky-looking old tape recorder, which is playing what sounds like a children’s chorus. At which point Sophie coos, “That’s lovely!” even as Ryan is laughing as if she’d just seen her ex-husband fall under a 18-wheeler.
The sidetracker is Parker, who is herself sidetracked while doing a favor for a woman named Peggy, whom she befriended during a job and whom she’s using to hone her skills at doing “normal people” activities, such as having brunch. (“And we’re very proud of you,” Sophie tells her. Parker, modest to the end, replies, “It’s not hard. There are forks.”) Peggy’s idea of a normal-people activity turns out to be Parker scoping out the blind date she met online, and who she’s planning to take along to the big to-do at the consulate that Peggy is catering. Parker takes one look at the guy and sees that he’s a suave dreamboat, but also that he’s a veteran crook who is presumably up to no good, so she introduces herself to him as Peggy, and gets rid of Peggy by pointing out some bald schlub to her as the mystery date. That’s too bad, says cat-loving Peggy: “I really liked this one. He sent me the most heart-breaking email about declawing.” But screw it, however much she liked his mind and his heart, the guy’s not George Clooney, so she flees the scene without even asking the waiter to drop off a note at the table letting him know that it’s not going to work between them and he might want to ask for the check so he can go cruise a Starbucks. Is Peggy meant to be an unusually callous, shallow bitch, or is the character just collateral damage, taken out by the writers’ desire to keep things moving? Whatever the case, I’m not sure I like the idea of Parker resorting to the company of charmers like these in her quest for better social skills.
The Mr. Smooth guy—the character goes by the Ken-doll name of “Craig Mattingly,” and is played by the Australian actor Wil Traval, who’s very engaging, though if he hopes to continue working in American television, he’d be well advised to pick one accent per role and stick with it—is better company than Peggy, both for the audience and for Parker. At the end, there’s a lesson there: Parker had been concerned about her relationship with Hardison, because they’re so different in their interests, but she and Craig Mattingly like all the same things, like robbing people and kicking their asses while pretending to be other people, but after their busy evening together, she reflects that “it would have been more fun with Hardison.” This is sweet, though it also chokes off what had begun to look like a promising avenue to explore in future episodes: Jealousy might have been a fun look on Hardison, but it doesn’t look as if we’ll really get to find out.
- Sophie and Tara try to concoct a plan for creating a disturbance: Tara’s first thought involves starting a fire. Sophie: “I was thinking something a little less trample-y.” These two are meant to share a past, right? Would it kill TNT to produce a prequel TV movie? How much worse could it be than the Burn Notice one-shot The Fall Of Sam Axe?
- The state of Parker’s social skills, neatly summed up when Peggy catches her running around with her real online pen pal and gets the wrong idea: “You know, I’m really bad at explaining things. Can we just skip to the part where you’re not mad at me?”
- Competitive grifter snark: “[Posing as a] Russian escort? So three years ago!”