In theory, I find it admirable and exciting when a show like Leverage mixes it up a little and tinkers with its formula in weird and ambitious ways. That's in theory. In actuality, the results may leave you with the suspicion that the show is mostly content to stick with its formula because the people behind the scenes do their best work when they stay snug inside their comfort zone. This was the episode that guest starred Danny Glover. Those of us who pay any attention to Leverage have known for quite a while that there was going to be an episode guest starring Danny Glover this season, because his face has been popping up in the promotional materials so often that it leaves you with a mental image of the people in the casting department hugging themselves so hard that they they ooze jelly.
Glover was cast as a mystery geezer who arrived in town and went straight to the roller rink, where he was accosted by a mean man who told him that he knew what he'd gotten up to after he "went to war in 1942." This encounter proved stressful enough to induce a heart attack that sent Glover to the hospital. It turned out that the guy wasn't speaking in riddles; he was referring to the fact that Glover's character had fought in Europe in World War II and come back home toting a stolen Van Gogh. Right away things were weird, and not in a great way: Danny Glover was born in 1946, and in bringing him in to play an eighty-eight-year-old man, the show didn't even bother trying to age him with, say, an unflattering mustache and a full complement of chalk dust in his hair, the way the makers of the Lethal Weapon movies did to indicate that he was getting too old for that shit. Maybe they were afraid that their basic cable makeup budget wouldn't be fancy enough to impress the distinguished star of Saw V.
It turned out that Glover had found himself an easy gig. After he'd earned his paycheck by doing the heart attack scene ("Nggghhhhh...." [thunk!]), all he had to do was lie in his hospital bed and grudgingly dispense pieces of his back story, along with the odd bit of sage advice to the lovelorn. Nate and the gang were pumping the old man for information as they searched for the Van Gogh, and they apparently found it helpful to take parts in his biography as the scenes were acted out in flashback. Aldis Hodge played the younger Glover, shining shoes and finally shipping off the war in the 1940s, in hopes that he might somehow make his fortune and win the hand of the blonde he loved--played, of course, by Beth Riesgraf. In the scenes set in Europe, Christian Kane donned a helmet and uniform to play Hodge's commanding officer, who, after Hodge has killed a German soldier, explains that he's putting another man up for the honors that are rightfully Hodge's, because "It is not the policy of the United States military to hand out medals to Negroes."
Back in the States, Timothy Hutton played the town sheriff, wearing a black hat and an ugly but roomy brown jacket that made him look like Tippy Turtle, Texas Ranger. He had his hands full trying to keep the peace when Hodge returned home and Riesgraf's father learned of the uppity black war hero's intentions. When the father and his goons threatened Hodge and he gave them some lip, Dad sneered, "Just because you served our nation honorably doesn't give you the right to speak to me like that. Seems to me you may have forgotten your place." At the end of every line the guy delivered, I tensed up a little, expecting him to spit out the crowning insult, "Boy!" But he never did. It's a funny thing: when a show just hands you cliche after cliche, it can get pretty boring, but when it repeatedly hands you most of a cliche but then resists going all the way with it, it's just as boring, and you also feel kind of short-changed.
It gradually became clear that the episode was designed as an acting showcase--not for the bedridden, MTV Movie Award-winning guest star, but for the regulars, who got the chance to show off their ranges, albeit in a vacuum. Hodge, who was, as always, funny and motor-mouthed in the present-day scenes, was angry and dignified and romantic in the flashbacks; Riesgraf, playing a sweet small-town princess in a period hairdo and makeup, who doesn't have the strength to follow her heart, was almost unrecognizable, which was impressive but also disappointing to those of us who enjoy recognizing her week after week. And Christian Kane was solid enough to make me think that, surprisingly enough, he's learned a lot more about acting over the course of this show than he did on Angel.
The performances were perfectly, honorably serious: there was no jokiness, no connections drawn between the characters the actors usually play on the show and the ones they were playing in the flashbacks. That's how the same gimmick was handled in the classic "Cicely" episode of Northern Exposure, with the regulars acting out the founding of their town, as narrated by an old man played by the great Roberts Blossom--who, by the way, died a week ago, thus depressing the ever loving shit out of me. That was an approach that could easily have gone wrong, but when Northern Exposure did it, it managed to be both loving and funny, whereas Leverage's approach turned out to be dutiful and dull. The only traces of fun came through the usual small character details, whether they were reinforcing the characters as they've behaved a hundred times before, such as the way Christian Kane can throw aside a clipboard in a way that announces "The ass-kicking portion of our program will now commence!" or stretching the boundaries of the characters as they've been defined, such as seeing Parker, after being told by the old man to not waste time, look at Hardison in a way she never quite has before.
The cast of Leverage has become an accomplished unit in a way that makes it easy to take them for granted, and I'm glad for them that they had this chance to show what else they can do. Here's hoping that next week, they get back to doing what, on this show, makes them fun to watch.
One good line: Nate saying to the insurance investigator whose pursuit of the Van Gogh ("the white whale of art theft recovery") had become obsessive over the course of twenty years, "The painting's about a man going to work. That's why you loved it. Somehow that got lost." Robert Hughes couldn't have said it better. Well, probably he could have, but we're grading on a curve here.