One trick that formula shows like Leverage can use to ward off boredom, for the actors and writers if not necessarily for the audience, is to take a little break from themselves and pretend to be a different kind of formula show than the kind they've been for most of the preceding three years and change. Tonight, Leverage took a shot at being a classical whodunnit, with a dead body, an exotic setting ("The killer's got the same problem we do. No way off this island until morning!"), and a guest list full of suspects. It began pretty well, too: I got a happy little shiver as soon as the title flashed onscreen against a backdrop of a big house at night in stormy weather.
Things started rolling down hill as soon as the action moved indoors, where Timothy Hutton was talking fast at a man, who looked like a tall Peter Dinklage, pointing a gun at him, This was followed by that surefire suspense generator, a cut to a different location accompanied by the words, "Three Days Later..." This was the set-up in which our heroes were briefed on the villainy of their latest target, a smug, venal, and dangerously corrupt construction mogul played by William Russ. Twenty-three years ago, William Russ played Roger Lococco on Wiseguy, and because of that, I will never speak ill of him so long as I live, not even if he steals my woman and shoots my cat and uses my Sonny Sharrock CDs as coasters. (I consider it a gesture of respectful advice, rather than speaking ill, when I point out that, with the weight he's put on and the curly thickness of his lemon meringue toupee, he now looks, from some angles, as if he should be scolding Coach Taylor for not doing enough to utilize the football talents of his son, Buddy, Jr.)
It seemed that Russ had reaped too much power and money and caused too much needless hurt and suffering by putting up shoddy buildings all over the country, death traps that collapsed, in the process, took the lives and physical well-being of countless innocents. Explaining the process, Hutton said, "He underbids the contractors, he uses cheap materials and unskilled labor to put up the buildings, and then when things go to hell, he's two jobs down the line." That sounded like a solid and respectable formula for success in the anti-regulation age to me, but Hutton assured us that it's actually "an old scam." To make sure that Russ got his comeuppance, Hutton and Sophie crashed Russ's office pretending to be very important people. To better pull off their disguise, she spoke in an accent that would have gotten her a blank stare from Sasha Baron Cohen, and he wore a hat that he'd lifted from someone on top of a Swiss alp who was yodeling next to a goat. For laughs, they also introduced themselves as Yma Sumac and Dexter Gordon, which just goes to show you how thoroughly Supernatural has picked that particular bone clean.
The gang converged on the aforementioned big house on the isolated location, where Russ was throwing his annual shindig where all the guests had good reason to hate his ever-loving guts. The event was a murder-mystery themed costume party, with everyone dressed as a celebrated detective "from literature." I don't want to say that the show's wardrobe department dropped the ball on this one, but what might have been a fun little gimmick came across as undercooked. I mean, was the guy in the Hawaiian shirt supposed to be Magnum, P.I. and the guy in the cowboy hat McCloud, or what? It kind of looked as if they just utilized whatever was in the back of the closet and hoped that nobody who was watching would think about it too hard. Maybe both we and the extras were lucky that they didn't decided to try to get away with pretending that there are famous literary detectives who dress as Fed Ex drivers or belly dancers.
The best that could be said for the wardrobe people is that they couldn't do much worse than Sophie. She announced that she was supposed to be Irene Adler, a character from "A Study in Scarlet" who has inspired a considerable amount of rapturous, gaseous speculation from Sherlock Holmes freaks over the years. Apparently Sophie is on some Sherlockogist chat board where people think Irene dressed like the Mad Hatter's creepy sister. It was also Sophie's idea that Eliot, as the Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo, should be costumed, Bat Masterson-style, as a Western dime novel dandy. Last week, I mentioned how much fun it was just seeing Christian Kane in an apron; going from that to this in the space of two episodes wasn't exactly a case of gingerly putting one toe over the line. On the other hand, I did like the guy who pointed to his bad tie and explained that he was supposed to be Mannix.
This episode could have used a lot more humor. Not this putting-the-regulars-in-silly-outfits "humor", but the real thing, actual comedy. It's not that the episode was too "serious", not by a long shot; it's that it settled for facetiousness instead of making the effort to actually be funny. (The main exception to this rule was Aldis Hodge, who seemed much looser and more energized than he did last week; he even stole a few scenes from Beth Riesgraf.) Some laughs would have helped to cover over, or at least compensate for, the facts that the mystery was a dud, the identity of the chief murderer obvious from the start, most of the supporting characters were so much padding, there was no attempt to make such plot necessities as Hutton removing the earpiece he'd been using to maintain contact with the rest of the team seem halfway credible, and the central problem that nothing ever seemed to be at stake. (The big intended suspense hook wasn't over whether someone would killed or who did it, but whether Hutton would end up taking the fall for it. Since there's no show without him, there didn't seem to be much reason to worry that he might.)
What I liked best about this episode was actually an in-joke. At the big party, Hutton makes his entrance dressed as Ellery Queen, who he admiringly describes as "the world's greatest detetcive." Ellery Queen may not have been all that, but he was played by Hutton's father in a likable TV series that lasted one season in the mid-seventies, just a few years before Jim Hutton died of liver cancer at the age of 45. Naturally, Timothy Hutton was dressed in a version of the preppy-ensemble-with-floppy-hat look that his father wore on the show, in a few shots he looked more like Jim Hutton than I remember him ever looking before. I will confess to finding this little shout-out very touching, and given my big mushy heart, I'm probably bumping this one up a whole letter grade just because of it. I just wish I'd never entertained the thought that maybe they made the whole episode just because of it.