A few weeks ago, an Entertainment Weekly reviewer bitch-slapped Leverage. The charge: that, rather than playing to its low-budget strengths, the show has its con artists staging outrageous, unbelievable scams that are can’t be accomplished on their tight budgets—“their” meaning both Nate and his team and TNT. I remember reading that before watching the season premiere and thinking, “Huh, fair point,” and then watching the season premiere and thinking, “Screw it, I’m having a blast. I don’t care if Bigfoot shows up next.” The show’s premise has always been somewhere on the scale between fanciful and ridiculous, and this season, it has embraced its own silliness more consistently and playfully than ever before. I very much enjoyed the episode about the Spruce Goose and the phantom international hockey league. I enjoyed tonight’s episode about faking an extraterrestrial visitation even more, and I am looking forward to the promised episode whose title references D. B. Cooper.
At this point, it doesn’t much matter how unearthly the plots are about, because, after four years and several false starts, the entire cast is working at full strength, with the actors all so at home in their characters and so attuned to each others’ rhythms, that watching them cook together makes for hang-out TV heaven. (I’d say that, right now, it’s the most enjoyable of all the shows on basic cable, mainly on USA or TNT, that strive to recreate the modest, character-based, “one episode at a time” pleasures of old-school, episodic genre TV—except maybe for Longmire, the only show of its kind now that can sometimes actually get a little serious without looking like a kid clomping around in daddy’s shoes.) When everyone is gathered together, hashing out the details of the case while the opening credits flash on the bottom of the screen, you process the exposition in between the jokes that are based on the way the characters interact.
Often, the jokes are in the predictability of those reactions, and sometimes, they’re based on someone doing something surprising, as when Hardison, riding in a van piloted by Eliot, turns on some music and improvises a theme song for the occasion (“Two good old boys/ Behind the wheel/ Chasin’ down bad guys/ In Lucille…”), and Eliot gets into it and begins to sing along. Christian Kane really blossoms here when he gets to pose as a redneck nut job who’s been scanning the skies for UFOS. Wearing Billy Bob Thornton’s hat from A Simple Plan and using a different accent in every scene he’s in, he identifies himself as “Willy Riker” and politely asks the villain for an orange soda. (Fun fact: The episode was directed by Jonathan Frakes.) At the end, when Nate congratulates him on a job well done, he modestly looks down at his feet and mutters, “Hardison gave me the alias, and then Sophie helped me with the character,” before shuffling off. “We just gave him layers,” says Sophie, adding, “I wonder why Stanley Kubrick made directing look so hard!”
If the writers have stepped it up this season, it’s partly in the conception of the villains. Perhaps to accommodate the scams, they’ve stopped being standard-issue colorless capitalist exploiters and developed motives and obsessions as quirky as the heroes. Tonight, Neil Hopkins plays James Kanack, a talentless businessman-inventor who uses his inherited wealth to “hire real geniuses, steal their work, and lawyer them into the ground.” Through this route, he has become known as “the inventor of the Kanack irrigation process, the Kanack self-drying washing machine, and the Kanack low flow toilet.” “What kind of guy names a toilet after himself?” says Eliot. “Someone who cares more about fame than respect,” says Sophie.
Although Kanack is not above using his pilfered inventions to line his own coffers—he’s first shown offering to sell a “new hybrid jet engine” to an airline that, he says, will enable them to “lower their fees—or not,” at which point he and everyone else in the room laugh as if fondly remembering the first puppy they ever drowned—his Maltese Falcon is the dream of being the first person on Earth to make definitive two-way contact with an alien intelligence. So he’s constantly monitoring transmissions and hoping to receive a welcoming message from Michael Rennie. (“Funny,” Sophie says to Nate, “the irony of you taking on someone who listens.”) The plan involves undercutting him to make him appear deranged: “The Arkham Ascent,” the con is called, though Nate shrugs that it’s “really just the haunted house without the chains.” At first glance, Kanack appears to be one sly, composed customer, but after a few minutes of Eliot’s Duane Barry act, he’s taking his eye off the ball at work and shouting things like, “Get me a satellite dealer in an hour or you’re fired!” Meanwhile, Parker is doing her part for truth, justice, and the American way by dressing up like a Woman in Black and terrorizing the egomaniac by saying his name wrong.
And there we leave it. Autumn, as Bob Seger used to say, is closing in, and as we here at TV Club gear up for the fall season, the real estate in this section will become an even more precious resource. So our weekly reviews of Leverage are shutting down to make room for coverage of shows that are making a more pressing claim and that will, we hope, attract more eyeballs. If you haven’t checked the show out before but are, for some inexplicable reason, reading this, just know that now is a fine time to investigate it. Keep watching the skies!