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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Leverage: “The Office Job”

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Leverage got its MADtv on tonight, with a thickly layered episode that was largely staged as a parody of The Office, as directed by Werner Herzog. The premise was that the entire team, posing as “efficiency experts”, has gone undercover together to get to the bottom of some chicanery inside a troubled greeting card company. Too bad for them, the company’s offices are suffering from infestation by a camera crew, led by “noted German documentary filmmaker Gunter” something-or-other, played by Peter Stormare. Stormare throws a couple of extra “z”’s into his diction in a game effort to make his usual accent—which is Swedish by way of Mars—sound German, but the obvious reason for the casting was that somebody thought it would be neat to have a character modeled on the biggest five-star weirdo to have picked up a check in Los Angeles in all our lifetimes to be played by the first runner-up for that title. The most puzzling thing about it is why, after his self-parodying appearances in movies like Incident At Loch Ness and The Grand, and his voice cameo on The Simpsons, they didn’t get Herzog to play the role himself. Maybe one of his penguins was sick.

This kind of thing is tricky to pull off, partly because anyone working on a dramatic series on TNT who even thinks of trying it is likely to already be dangerously impressed with his own cleverness. For the most part, the show pulled off the look and feel of what it was making fun of with skill and panache, but there were some lapses into sheer cuteness. It’s probably a good sign for the overall health of the show that most of these had to do with the Herzog-Stormare character, with his pretensions to making a film that would expose “the oil that lubricates the capitalist engine” and his crush on Parker (“Vot a magnificent creature!”), whose icy veneer and tendency to incorporate images of animal violence and dead bodies into her greeting-card designs he interprets as proof that she has “a German soul.” (He gets to deliver a come-on speech to her about how much he enjoys eating in hospital cafeterias, where “the reminder of mortality and the fleetingness of life, combined with the institutional, mass-processed flavor of food… is intoxicating.”) When it comes to the problems and distractions bedeviling the team itself, a higher degree of comic respect is maintained. These are our heroes, after all.

Hardison and Eliot, for example, are pissed at each other because Eliot is convinced, in the face of Hardison’s heated denials, that it was he who had stolen Eliot’s sandwich from the refrigerator. Hardison finally accuses Eliot of having taken “too many hits to the head,” adding, “You probably ate the damn sandwich yourself and forgot about it!” Wonderfully, Eliot chooses to take this as a slam on his cooking. Miffed that anyone could suggest he had it in him to make a “forgettable” sandwich, he sits down in front of the camera, mockumentary-interview style, and lays out his recipe, making it clear just how much painstaking work and craft went into his masterpiece. It did sounds like something worth holding a grudge over.; in fact, it sounds like something worth flinging a sandwich thief off a roof over, but Eliot makes it clear that he absolutely wouldn’t have gone that route unless it just felt really right.

The team quickly zeroes in on the head of the company, a former football star played by Josh Randall with such a thick whiff of all-American musclehead cluelessness that the casting director of The League would be well advised to move heaven and earth to reel him in for a story arc. It turns out that his dumb-guy act isn’t an act, and that he’s being set up as the fall guy for the real villain, who’s using the place as a front for a counterfeiting operation. The team nails her by keeping a camera trained on her hands as she carries out some nefariousness by tapping out a message on her phone with her lime-green-nailed fingers. (That was enough right there to make me like the episode, since I’d already noticed that the actress’ nails were painted green, and I have a hard and fast rule that nobody in a TV episode should be allowed to get away with that if it’s not part of a plot point.) It must have given Nate some real satisfaction to bring her down, since she’d already made his life difficult by taking Sophie aside and explaining that she was the victim of “reverse favoritism,” which translated as Nate being hard on her because of how badly he wants her. He must want her pretty bad to have let her tag along on this case, given that, as her cover as the team’s “emotioneer,” she gathers the employees in the break room and stages acting-class exercises as if they were part of a motivational seminar. “Blindfolds, ladies and gentlemen! Imagine a world where you cannot see, you can only feel,” she sings out gayly. “Now, everybody down on all fours… ”

The episode is playful, but the regulars all came to play, especially Timothy Hutton. And since both the mystery and the busting of the villain are simple and straightforward enough that the writers didn’t need to set aside a lot of space for sequence using both clips and spoken explication to explain what the hell had been going on, they were able to concentrate on the entertaining filigree. The high point is probably just Hutton and Gina Bellman’s intercut responses to Stormare’s interview questions about their relationship; I doubt that I’ve ever been happier about the fact that those two are supposed to have a thing. Hutton gives especially spirited reads on “That, right there, that’s a lie. I love foreplay!” and “‘Functioning’ alcoholic, ‘functioning.’ She always leaves that part out.” A kind word should also be said for the hulking warehouse guy who, confronted by Eliot and told, “We can do this the hard way…” doesn’t wait to find out what his other options are and bolts. Eliot catches him, though, and soon the guy is tearfully unloading to the camera:  “Don’t tell anybody I got beat up by an efficiency expert.”