‘Leverage: Season 4’ is Not About the Art of the Con, but the Thrill of It

Though we live in an Occupy-dominated time, there comes a point where smearing fat cats can become a tired exercise. Take, for instance, the TNT heist procedural Leverage, which recently began its fifth season. The type of people the Leverage crew pull heists on are, in ringleader Nathan Ford’s (Timothy Hutton) words, “the rich and powerful [who] take what they want.” His solution? “We steal it back for you.”

With the ever-entrenched crony capitalism plaguing the American political system, this is something we can all relate to. Nate himself has suffered a tragic loss as a result of corporate bureaucracy; his son died after the insurance company he worked for wouldn’t pay for his treatment, citing the procedure as “not fully tested”. This righteous anger has helped motivate the team to stick out their necks week after week, wherein they take down all sorts of rich baddies, who are usually boring-looking white men. (One notable exception is Saul Rubinek’s turn as Victor Dubenich, who looks eerily like the always terrifying Antonin Scalia.)

There are many reasons to hate heads of big businesses, but the sense of justice we’re supposed to feel begins to wear off after a few episodes. Every now and then they’ll throw in an international thief or a corrupt politician as a mark, but for the most part Leverage plays out like a meeting of Robin Hood and Mission Impossible.

But you can’t blame the show for finding its stride and sticking to it. TNT, much like its similarly-minded networks USA and TBS, has a thing for the procedural. That type of show rarely offers any depth, but that’s not the point of such programming. You can tune into an episode of, say, Law & Order SVU at any time without having the need to rely on backstory for understanding. It’s all about the thrill of the case, a thing the cast and crew of Leverage know about too well.

Unfortunately for them, however, the safe nature of procedurals conflicts with the core ethos of the “art of the con” espoused by the Leverage crew: cons are supposed to be tricky, ready to succumb to any pratfall at any given time. As Nate tells Hardison (Aldis Hodge, “The Hacker” and comic relief extraordinaire), a con artist will have to go through any number of plans in a single scheme, as there are so many moving parts one can’t always take into account. Yet none of the leads here ever feel truly in danger; sure, Nate gets shot in the season finalé, but it’s in the shoulder, passed off as a flesh wound. Through some crazy set of events (read: deus ex machina), the crew always manages to find its way out of the stickiest of situations. After awhile you’ll begin to accept this, and just go along with the thrill of it all, but the lack of substance is pretty obvious.

That is but one of the many of the persistent flaws still present in the fourth season. There’s the cabal of awful accents: Sophie (Gina Bellman, “The Grifter”) always manages to convince people she’s foreign with her one poorly feigned accent, which still sounds obviously British. In one episode (“The Queen’s Gambit Job”), Hardison somehow passes as Saudi despite sounding British, and Parker (Beth Riesgraf, “The Thief”) does a French accent so bad even a first-year French high school student would notice.

There’s also the matter of the secondary actors. One usually doesn’t look to episode-specific roles for Emmy-worthing acting, but Leverage seems to have the worst luck in picking these actors. “The Radio Job” demonstrates this well: an interaction between two government agents is so poorly performed it’s as if they had just read the script. (This did, however, produce one of the funniest lines of the season: one of the agents, a Homeland Security officer, points out, “At Homeland, we don’t think. We act.” Unfortunately, you can’t tell if she’s serious or not.)

In the end, though, none of these problems really hold back one’s ability to enjoy the program. Verisimilitude is important to the depiction of the confidence game, but Leverage has never had the depth of the greatest cinematic depictions of the long con. This is a show about the fun of it all; what we look forward to most are things like Elliot’s (Christian Kane, “The Hitter,” who looks like David Foster Wallace on steroids) epic butt-kickings, Hardison’s never-ending stream of cool tech references, or Parker’s acrobatic moves.

In past seasons, there have been attempts at deep examinations of character or, worst of all, multi-episode story arcs that never paid off. Where Season 4 succeeds is in its playfulness; the majority of the episodes here are gimmicky and fun rather than overly serious. A daring example is “The Office Job”, perfectly described by an AV Club critic as “a parody of The Office, as directed by Werner Herzog.” (Phil Dyess-Nugent, 4 December 2011) What begins as a simple takedown of a greeting card company led by a malicious bross (that’s “bro boss”, and yes, you may quote me on that) who is allegedly embezzling funds becomes a convincing and insightful spoof. The mockumentary-style cameras end up providing means to examine the interplay between the characters, especially the will-they-won’t-they tension of Nate and Sophie.

Compared to the rest of the series this is free-form experimentation, a real breath of fresh air halfway through these 18 episodes. Watching Elliot describe how he meticulously makes his sandwich (which Hardison stole from the employee freezer), you can’t help but laugh. A lot.

Their romance, along with the adorable coupling of Hardison and Parker, are given some, but not much, thought. The difficulty Leverage faces in its basic plot structure is finding space to fit any the interpersonal relationships amidst the complexities of the heists, which most of the time it doesn’t do well. The romantic stuff works mostly because we’ve had four years to get to know these characters, which has allowed for some time to let the flirting build up to something deeper. It’s nice to finally see the love spread around; the only shortfall here is that for most of the episodes it’s all fleeting gazes and the occasional meaningful talk. Nate kisses Sophie in the finalé (a step down from their fling at the end of Season 3), but in the end all the romance is left at a cliffhanger. Just enough to keep you on for Season 5, I guess.

The final story arc that concludes everything is driven by the type of villain Nathan Ford & Company should have faced long ago: the disgruntled CEO. As noted in PopMatter’s review of the Season 3 premiere, not long after a con or two, the Leverage gang would have been near the top of FBI’s Most Wanted. Similarly, after amassing a long list of very wealthy, very connected corporate enemies, there should have been some backlash, and in the finalé it arrives. (Michael Abernethy, 20 June 2010) Victor Dubenich, three years after his failed attempt at a double-cross on Nate, has joined forces with an investment firm head named Jack Latimer (Leon Rippy). Latimer, using information provided by Dubenich, has been betting against the companies the Leverage crew have pulled heists against, making shattering profits as a result. These two wealthy gents conspire to undo the five thieves. I won’t ruin the ending, but since the program is still airing you can be assured it doesn’t involve a mass slaughter.

Keeping in the spirit of fun, this four-disc set is loaded with bonus features, which will no doubt keep fans happy. There are behind-the-scenes featurettes of several episodes, deleted scenes, a blooper reel, and commentaries throughout. This breezy show looks as if it is is as fun to make as it is to watch.

RATING 6 / 10