The most entertaining episodes of Leverage this season have basically been self-parodies, goofy little diversions that amount to the show setting up a ridiculous situations and running little skits together, most of which take as their central joke the fact that this is a ridiculous show. Tonight, though, Leverage actually managed to tell a story that generated some emotional interest without getting too heavy for its britches. It wasn't an amazingly original story, especially if you've seen Man on Fire or any other movie where a hard-bitten modern samurai marches into the arena to save a child he's sworn to protect--for professional reasons, at first, but by the time some misguided son of a bitch has been so self-destructive as to mess with his little sugar dumpling, well, by then, it's personal.
I was impressed by how well the episode worked, partly because I'd decided that the series was just going to slowly giggle itself to death between now and cancellation, and partly because the clips in the teaser of Elliot (the samurai, of course) and the tween-age girl he had to save promised nothing but treacly sentiment. Somehow, even with Christian Kane doing his best to look as if he was roundhouse punch away from being beaten to death while staggering into a carnival house of mirrors for a little Lady from Shanghai action, the show managed to keep its head.
At first, there seemed to be no special reason to expect great things from tonight, or even to expect things that fall on the right side of so-so. The opening scene was a confrontation outside an evil-looking, albeit modestly scaled, place of corporate business. A youngish fellow wearing a T-short reading STOP DESTROYING OUR PLANET was seen arriving for work on his bicycle and getting into it with a bearded, balding dude in eyeglasses who had clearly studied at the Paul Giamatti Institute of Sinister Huffiness. Can you guess, in, like, a million years, which of them would soon be sitting in a bar, crying to Nate and Sophie about how he had been wronged by the other guy? Did I mention that the Paul Giamatti understudy had bodyguards to back him up as he got up in people's faces and paraded his attitude?
It turned out that Kid Greenpeace had created a computer chip that was going to solve a whole bunch of the world's problems. Sophie had the nerve to ask him what exactly the hell it did, as if she'd never heard of a MacGuffin before. "Bacially," answered the kid, "it changes everything," and I'd like to imagine that Nate at least kicked her under the table. Soon they were doing a fun pretentious-diva-and-prole-helpmate doubles act as they schemed to steal the chip back from the False Giamatti. Meanwhile, Parker was pissed off at Hardison because he'd invented a safecracking robot that she viewed as the first step towards rendering her obsolete, and had even added insult to injury by naming it the Parker 2000, in loving tribute. And Eliot, naturally, was playing bodyguard to the mark's daughter and bonding with her in record time, though she sneered at the heartland platitudes he offered in response to her preadolescent cynicism. Informed by the girl that life is a carnival and all the games are rigged, Eliot said, "I know a way to beat those games you think are rigged. Hard work." "Was Rudy on cable last night?" she asked. Eliot admitted that it was but seemed to think the principle was worth observing all the same.
This was all fine, though you got no points at all for guessing that something was going to happen to derail the plan and set things off on a different track. The writers of Leverage have always taken more obvious pleasure in setting up a premise than in following straight through with it, and the series has gotten twistier lately as it's begun to dawn on them that if they were in danger of being arrested for veering off course, it would have happened by now. Nor was it hard to predict by what means the show would be making its course correction. During their research on the target, the team discovered not only that he was a single dad who was doing his screwed-up best, but that he was a widower who had gotten involved in chicanery partly because of his fumbling efforts to keep it together with his wife gone. "That's grief we're seeing, not greed," said Sophie. "I thought we were supposed to hate the people we take down," said Eliot. "Not a necessity," Nate grunted, with a shrug. "A perk."
Anyway, that popular standby of basic cable action shows, the Russian mob, made off with the daughter, and everyone got the chance to do something cool in the background while Eliot, his hair bouncing manfully as he loped around the field of battle, got to make like the Terminator. To spruce things up, the team blew something up real good so they could all walk dramatically out of the smoke, side by side like the Wild Bunch, and there were also so many scenes where the camera circled around and around whichever actor was the focus of attention that I started to wonder if Brian De Palma had a yard sale. Was this stuff irresistible? I can report that my girlfriend managed to resist it pretty well, and at an impressively high volume. No doubt there will be those, some of whom have learned to work the comments function, who will wish that she was the one writing this. I won't argue that the pleasures of Leverage when it's taking itself seriously and not tripping over its shoelaces are of the cheeseball variety. But there's good cheese, and then there's Velvetta Thin Slices. I prefer my cheese cut thick.
Tonight's episode was directed by... for real, Frank Oz? That's what it said in the credits, anyway. Seriously, Miss Piggy, that Frank Oz? The man who made the remake of The Stepford Wives, which is supposed to be about a woman who's in danger of being replaced by a robot, except Oz's version starred Nicole Kidman, which made for one hell of a moot point. (He also made The Score, which gives him the distinction of having directed Marlon Brando's final performance, though using words like "directed" and "performance" in this case might be pushing it. Among devotees of stories of bad behavior by Brando, The Score may be best remembered for the legend that the star once said to Oz, "I bet you wish I was a puppet so you could stick your hand up my ass and make me do what you want.”) Well, anyway, he did a pretty good job.