Buying a United States Congressman is one of the best investments a company can make.

— Charles Dufort (Richard Cox), “The Homecoming Job”

As it happens, tonight’s second episode of Leverage is startlingly topical. That is, it’s focused on the escapades of a private “security” contractor — here named, oh so insidiously, Castleman. The episode begins with a video-in-progress, being made by a soldier in Iraq for his stateside fiancée. “See those guys,” he says to her, pointing his camera toward a squad of men in desert camo and high-end protective vests. “They’re private contractors, they make 700 bucks a day, I make seven.” At that point, the contractors notice him — and they begin shooting.

Here the video stops and replays, as Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton) asks some questions. The young man who shot the video is now in a wheelchair, about to be cast out of a VA hospital, his rehab unfinished and his fiancée long gone, his face drawn and scarred. All he wants, the kid says, is to have the rest of his treatment paid for. They owe him, he intimates, though the “they” is not precisely named. Nate nods. “They” should pay, he agrees. And he’s just the man to make that happen.

There are numerous elements in this fantasy that make it fantastic, including the fact that the video camera caught the shooters doing damage, the victim is explicitly a Caucasian American troop, and the heroic con men and techs at Nate’s company Leverage have the inclination and wherewithal to make it all right. This is, after all, the series’ premise, established during its scene-setting premiere on Sunday, 7 December: Nate’s diversely talented and backgrounded crew take up this case with a mix of moral and nerdy interests (translation: they like beating the system because the system is so corrupt, broken, and inept, that it deserves to be beaten, again and again).

The show is standard Mission Impossibley in too many ways. Each week Nate oversees a masterful scheme in which his team steals from skeevy rich people to give back to relatively and always ethically sound poor people. Its action is order by a pulsing synthetic soundtrack, deep blue shadows, expensive toys rigged by techs Parker (Beth Riesgraf) and Alec (Aldis Hodge), and a weekly martial arts display by endearingly scruffy expert Eliot (Christian M. Kane) (“That’s what I do,” he announces in Episode One after laying out a team of guards with deft kicks and jabs, his pride subtle but undeniable). Nate may or may not have a romance brewing with shapely British grifter Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman), someone with whom he once tangled — back when he worked as an investigator for an insurance company and considered himself technically lawful. Now, he’s abandoned that notion and rejected the official structures as irredeemably immoral. He and his uniformly pretty crew members see themselves as good outlaws battling bad insiders.

The startlingly topical focus of the current episode is accidental but nearly instructive. With the announcement yesterday that the U.S. government has indicted five Blackwater Worldwide security guards on manslaughter charges, it might appear that private contractors are in trouble, their erstwhile carte blanche in U.S.-ordained theaters of war rescinded. Many questions have been raised concerning these “soldiers of fortune” in the past, not least by the excellent documentary Shadow Company or Jeremy Scahill’s investigative journalism (as well as his book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army and P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. Each of these texts retells the history of mercenaries and contextualizes today’s versions amid advancing technologies, blurring national borders, and scads of money, noting the dangers inherent in such expansions. Indeed, their role in U.S. war-making has expanded exponentially during the Bush administration, with some observers estimating that payment to private contractors in Iraq alone will surpass $100 billion by the end of this year.

In Leverage, the contractors encountered by the team are thugs, including the founder and CEO Charles Dufort (Richard Cox). In cahoots with a snidely congressman (Robert Pine), Dufort uses Castelman to steal cash from the U.S. government, which makes him especially villainous. Even if his employees are trained professionals and like to shoot at people, the show suggests, his material, venal focus is beyond the pale.

If the first and second episodes of Leverageare indicative, the distinctions between good and bad guys will be clear during each adventure, and the recipients of Nate’s largesse will be deserving, having been abused by powers that be or that wannabe. As Nate puts it at the end of the first episode, which guest-starred Saul Rubinek as an squirrely engineer and ineffective con man, “Corporations have all the money, all the power.” He means to refit that imbalance, to provide what he calls “leverage” against all that corporate weight. In this, Leverage, however retro its premise, appeals to a timely sense of grievance and outrage.

RATING 5 / 10