Entering its fourth season, Leverage remains true to its formula. The premise is in the tradition of all those shows about crooks who heard some variation on the line, "If only he could use his powers for good instead of evil!" too many times and now stage con games for the purpose of helping the helpless, punishing the wicked, and, as Edward Woodward used to say, equalizing the odds a bit. Previous examples include The Rogues with Gig Young, David Niven, and Charles Boyer and Switch with Eddie Albert and Robert Wagner. Okay, I never said it was a great tradition.
As the bad TV of yesteryear goes, this is actually a halfway classy lineage, dating back to a time when con men in movies and plays were often depicted as gentlemen gone wrong and an upscale change of pace from the usual crook who preferred to get his victims' money by cracking them upside the head in a dark alley than by staging a three-act piece of improvisational theater. (Some of the cons on these shows are so complicated, with so many players and props and costume changes, that you have to wonder if they can possibly bring enough of a return to justify all that overhead. I once saw Jim Rockford bring off a con that made Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark look like a one-man show on a bare stage.)
Rather than aim for that kind of stylish, champagne-among-scoundrels feel, Leverage aims for more of a Miller time vibe, and is probably better for it. Sure, Timothy Hutton is a fairly classy leading man for a basic cable series, but not in a Rex Harrison way. More like, classy like a teenage Oscar winner who's married to the niece of a former President of France but who hasn't been invited to Oscar night in a long time and still has to live down Turk 182. (Hutton also starred in A & E's old Nero Wolfe series, where he was also executive producer and sometime director, an experience that probably taught him more than he wanted to know about the difficulty of doing something stylish and sophisticated on a basic cable budget.)
As Nathan Ford, the leader of his own personal A-Team of grifters, hackers, head thumpers, etc., Hutton is likable and knows how to work what the show once allowed a character to refer to as his "I'm sexy because I'm broken" thing. He wants to entertain you, and he knows he isn't piloting an ambitious hour of TV. But over at the rival USA channel, they've practically created a religion around the idea that in this day and age, sometimes unambitious TV is just what you want as you flop onto your couch. Maybe that's why the season premiere begins with the image of Eric Stoltz speaking straight into a video camera ("Hey, Pumpkin!"), recording a message that turns to static. It's hard not to take it as a cautionary reminder: You could be watching Caprica, you know.
It turns out that Stoltz went and disappeared in the frozen tundra while on an Alaska vacation. Then, right after he got back from vacation, he was planning to return home to his loving wife and reveal what he'd learned about some scandal involving a company that, just so you understand what kind of hyenas we're dealing with here, is "taking a hundred homes a day. That's a hundred families put out on the street every day." What the hell was Stoltz thinking? Was he out of his mind? Probably he just didn't register that he shouldn't be postponing his interview with 60 Minutes until after he'd had his fun playing Sir Edmund Hillary, because the area is, Hutton explains, "a rich man's playground" where zillionaires "pay fifty grand to get choppered halfway up the mountain, then climb to the peak having half a dozen guides carrying their luggage." So, the search the team undertakes to find Stoltz and the evidence he was carrying with him… it won't be that dangerous, then? What are you, nuts? The mission is "ridiculously dangerous," insists Aldis Hodge as Alec, the team computer genius. "It's like a dangerous cupcake with murder icing."
OK, so the core of the show isn't why they're there but what they do when they get there. I had a little trouble diagraming the pieces in my head so I could understand what A had to do with B and how it led to C, but some of the pieces are kind of nice on their own. Most of Stoltz's performance turns out to be delivered from beyond the grave, but his big aria of love for his wife is impressive, and he did go that extra mile in earning his paycheck by allowing the makeup crew to use his face as a canvas with which to realize their impressionistic vision of how Eric Stoltz might look if he broke his leg and froze to death in the Grinch's basement; the brother looks like a bronzed baby shoe. And Leverage is getting better at tying its plot gimmicks in with what's going on with its characters in ways that make sense. Up there at the top of the world, Hutton seems to be suffering from "altitude disease," though as the "hitter," Eliot (Christian Kane) points out, it could also be the DTs, since the symptoms are pretty much identical. Hutton doesn't bother to insist that no way could it be the latter, because what would be the point, since we've all met him.
Hutton has extra reason to pat his coat to make sure he remembered to pack his flask, because the last time we saw him and Sophie (Gina Bellman), the grifter with whom he's been cultivating the weird sexual tension thing, they were in bed together. Being a mature man of the world, Hutton seems prepared to deal with this in time-honored fashion of pretending it didn't happen unless she insists that it did, in which case he'll ask her how she doesn't know that it wasn't his identical twin who only leaves his home base on Mars to visit every alternate leap year. Romance is breaking out all over at Leverage: Alec the hacker seems about to have his dreams come true in the form of an actual relationship with the team thief, named simply Parker, presumably in tribute to the late Donald Westlake's alter ego Richard Stark, and played by Beth Riesgraf as a combination of Veronica Lake, Chloe O'Brian, Catwoman's kid sister, and that weird poker-faced girl on the playground when you were both about 10, who you used to be so mean to you and then would suddenly, unexpectedly grin at you in this private, conspiratorial way that made you feel funny.
This is the budding plot thread that gives me pause. I don't watch shows like this in hopes of startling acts of character development, but I can tolerate a certain amount of the stuff in exchange for the occasional sight of Christian Kane in an apron. But Parker is the show's wild card crossed with its ace in the hole; on its worst nights, I have sat patiently through acres of garbage just to find out whether, the next time she changes expression at some point in the next 20 minutes, she'll decide to smirk or pout. Maybe seeing Parker in love will turn out to be a blast; there's not much I can do about it but hope so. But if Leverage screws up her character, it'll take more than a bunch of lovably mismatched scoundrels to pull their nuts out of the fire.