Aug 10, 2009

DVD Review: Leverage: The 1st Season

When I first watched the Leverage pilot on TV, I wrote it off as an inferior Burn Notice wannabe... but I couldn’t help tuning in for more. Now I’m hooked. And while it might indeed be TNT’s answer to USA’s Burn Notice, Leverage has really come into its own. You can trace that progress over the course of the breezy thirteen episodes included in Paramount’s Leverage: The 1st Season DVD package. The pilot, while fun and slickly produced, fails to indicate that by the two-part season finale, the show will boast one of the best heists seen on the big or small screen since The Thomas Crown Affair remake! But over the course of the season, you can clearly see that progression unfold.

Let’s talk about these shows in terms of their Sixties counterparts. As Burn Notice is to The Saint, Leverage is to Mission: Impossible. Nate Ford (The Falcon and the Snowman’s Timothy Hutton) was once the best insurance investigator in the business (that curious old spy subgenre again!), but ever since the company he worked for allowed his son to die by denying him proper coverage, Ford has been burnt-out and washed-up–and drunk. His current condition, combined with his unique skill set, makes him the perfect man for an aerospace tycoon to turn to when he needs to go outside the law to steal back some industrial secrets he claims were stolen from him. Nate is at first reluctant to take the job, but ultimately bites at the offer when he realizes it will also be a chance to get back at his former employer, whom he blames for his son’s death. Nate then proceeds to recruit the best criminals he ever tangled with in a variety of specializations. Elliott (Angel's Christian Kane) is a master of unarmed combat; Parker (Beth Riesgraf) is an expert cat burglar; Hardison (Aldis Hodge) can hack into anything and Sophie (Coupling’s Gina Bellman) is a master con artist who can slip into any accent and any role with ease. (She considers herself an actress, but she’s patently terrible in legitimate theater; Nate wisely tells the others, "that’s not her stage.")

If you squint just a little, you can plainly see that these are all analogues of the classic Mission: Impossible line-up. Barney, the "electronics whiz" has become a hacker in the 21st Century, and Willy, the "strong man," has become a fighter. The mastermind (Jim Phelps then; Nate Ford now) and the actor (Rollin; Sophie) remain the same. The cat burglar is a new addition and a good touch. Each character is introduced with a too-cute little flashback, blatantly aping the Italian Job remake. Elliot’s so-fast-you-don’t-see-him-move tactics against a roomful of gunmen unfortunately brings to mind another movie in another genre, Blazing Saddles (making it laughable instead of impressive), and a flashback to Parker’s childhood makes it appear that she killed her family! (She didn’t; more on that later.) Despite the clunky introductions, though, all of the characters are interesting and the actors demonstrate great chemistry together right from the start.

The extended version of the pilot on the DVD includes a lot of good scenes not found in the regular 42-minute broadcast version that I initially saw during the season–but it’s still mainly an excuse to get this team together. In the end–after a double-cross and some good slight-of-hand–these former lawbreakers realize they actually enjoy doing good, and Nate convinces them to permanently team up. They’re going to stand up for the little guy, right the wrongs that slip through the legal system, provide leverage. All the stuff that Michael Westen does weekly on Burn Notice, but they’re going to use Mission: Impossible tactics. With the introductions out of the way, subsequent episodes jump straight into the con jobs. Some (like "The Mile-High Job," which takes place almost entirely onboard an airplane flying to South America) are better than others (season low point "The Wedding Job," finds the gang undercover as wedding planners for a mobster’s daughter), but they all boast impressively clever cons and good heists.

Like Burn Notice, Leverage remains primarily episodic rather than serial, but thanks to the changes in TV storytelling in the last three decades, the characters become much more fleshed out than those on Mission: Impossible. Even though we got to see Jim’s hometown in one episode, we never really got to know him–and we certainly never explored his flaws. Nate is a flawed mastermind. He’s a highly functioning alcoholic ("let’s focus on the ‘functioning’ part," he tells his people, acknowledging his problem but refusing to rectify it), and his dependency issues worsen throughout the season. He’s forced to confront them when he must go undercover at a rehab facility in the penultimate "12-Step Job," but even then the series has the courage not to suddenly cure him in a forced manner. He even rejects an attempted intervention led by Sophie, who harbors long-unrequited feelings for Nate.

Parker is a complex character too, but her flaws are generally played more lightly than Nate’s. (Not that Leverage ever gets really dark; it is a fluffy, escapist show, after all!) A childhood in and out of foster homes has left Parker with an extreme social anxiety disorder. Despite being an attractive blonde, she fails Sophie’s seduction lessons because she has no sense of how to act in the world, let alone how to use her God-given charms. The socially awkward hottie with no filter is a character lifted unappologetically from Joss Whedon’s world (Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Ilyria on Angel; River in Firefly), but it’s such a good character that that doesn’t matter. And Riesgraf is a good actress who pulls it off well. Parker is much more comfortable rappelling down the side of a building than attending a cocktail party, and the writers clearly have fun inserting her into social situations where she can be awkward. (She lacks any sort of filter and constantly laughs at inappropriate moments.) The audience has fun with that too! As on Mission: Impossible, every character gets his or her own spotlight episode, and Parker’s is "The Stork Job" in which her own past motivates her to put herself at risk to save a group of war orphans. It’s actually a lot better than I make it sound!

Season highlights include "The Miracle Job," in which the team fakes a miracle by lifting a giant statue from a church while the whole congregation is present without anyone noticing, "The Snow Job," in which Nate’s alcoholism complicates what should be a straightforward fake property scam (and in which Sophie gets to be particularly sexy) and "The Bank Shot Job," in which Nate and Sophie end up in the middle of a bank robbery hostage situation while in the course of one of their cons, and Parker then has to break into a bank that’s already being robbed and is surrounded by police! In each case, the writers ingeniously find ways to depict classic con jobs, but still leave us rooting for the scammers because the people they’re scamming are always so deserving of it. Does that justify Nate & Co’s vigilantism? The series doesn’t really explore that, but things do get a little uncomfortable from a constitutional standpoint if viewers think too deeply about the highly entertaining "Juror #6 Job," in which the team manipulates the outcome of a trial. (That episode showcases some delicious guest turns from Brent Spiner and Lauren Holly–who seems to be morphing into Joan Allen.)

The best episode of the bunch, however, is the two-part season finale, "The First David Job" and "The Second David Job." Nate finally gets his chance for revenge on the head of his old company, Ian Blackpool (Lost’s Kevin Tighe) the man he blames directly for his son’s death and everything that’s gone wrong for him since. Blackpool is an art collector, and he’s determined to collect both maquettes that Michelangelo created in designing his "David." Furthermore, he wants to debut them to the world in a museum exhibition being underwritten by his firm. His lackey (and Nate’s former partner), Jim Sterling (Burn Notice alum Mark Sheppard), proves a more than worthy adversary for Nate, anticipating his team’s every move. After a truly unpredictable sequence of double-crosses and triple-crosses and a thoroughly-orchestrated splintering of the group, Nate finally turns that to his advantage by telling his opponents exactly what he plans to do: he will steal the Davids on the night the museum opens to the public. This bold challenge leads to that truly impressive, thoroughly entertaining heist sequence I mentioned at the beginning of this review. The twists come fast and furious, and this episode is as good as anything in any of the Ocean’s movies! The exceedingly appealing guest star Kari Matchett adds further sparks as Nate's ex-wife, Maggie, whose presence creates a bit of a love triangle with him and Sophie amidst all the heisting.

Leverage updates a formula that was great to begin with, and adds rich characterizations in the hands of highly capable actors with terrific chemistry together. It's also got great, jazzy heist music by Joseph LoDuca. Sure, it’s fluffy; it’s lighter than air, but I love that! If you enjoy the con and heist-based escapism of the old Mission: Impossible series, you should really investigate Leverage on DVD. Sure, it’s not quite as good as Burn Notice, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s its own show–and a highly entertaining one at that. (TNT should really think about programming it in the fall and spring, however, when Burn Notice is off the air, as opposed to trying to take on Michael Westen directly!)

In addition to quality programs, the DVDs also boast an impressive amount of extras. Foremost among them are the entertaining, informative commentary tracks on every single episode with series co-creators John Rogers (who at one point was writing a Queen & Country movie, but I suspect that particular version of that project is long dead now) and Chris Downey and executive producer Dean Devlin. These guys are never boring, and their commentary tracks are full of interesting anecdotes. They point out a lot of parallels between the series pilot and season finale (in each respective commentary) that I hadn’t picked up on. A lot of times they joke that "it’s almost like we planned this." That particular joke gets old fast, but self-deprecating or not, the remark does highlight how much careful planning goes into the series. It’s that kind of thinking, in fact (along with the character dynamic) that really justifies the show’s existence; sure, what they’re doing might be a retread of the Mission: Impossible formula, but this is a very contemporary take on it. With no disrespect meant to Bruce Geller and his talented team, writers simply weren’t thinking that way about TV back when that series was being broadcast.

In the pilot commentary, the writers talk about all the Italian Job-like character intros (while failing to credit that movie) and mention that often in pilots you do things so large that you have no choice but to dial back later. One of the commentators (it’s very tough to tell them apart) says that when he saw Elliot’s set up (that terrible bit in which he supposedly takes out a zillion bad guys with guns in a matter of seconds without getting a scratch), he thought, "what’s he gonna do next week, fight a bear?" Luckily, since it would have been fairly ridiculous to go in that particular direction, they did dial back the less than credible aspects of his fight sequences, and the series was better off for it. Still on the subject of the cute flashbacks introducing the characters, they also debate whether or not Parker, seen as a little girl, killed her family when she blew up their house. Even though it’s totally cut to indicate that, they argue that she didn’t. After going through a series of foster parents, they reason, she blew up one of the houses when the unbearable foster family wasn’t home. One of the commentators then jokes that it works that way because they cut out the bit with her foster father running out of the house on fire!

While they site a number of influences in discussing the pilot, they strangely don’t mention the most obvious: the aforementioned Mission: Impossible. Yet when they comment that "only Nathan Ford can see the big picture," his debt to Jim Phelps couldn’t be more obvious. They also sadly don’t remark on Christian Kane’s atrocious hairstyle (pictured to particularly awful effect on the back cover of the DVD), but they do call out an equally obvious reference to the hilarious Britcom The IT Crowd, giving credit where credit’s due. The only annoying thing about the commentaries is that during one of them (I think it was on the finale), they mention some storyboards and pre-vis that should be on elsewhere on the DVD, but as far as I can tell, they're not. Oh well. There’s plenty of other stuff as a consolation prize!

"Leverage Behind-the-Scenes," hosted by Dean Devlin, and more giving an overview of the series than revealing its secrets, was obviously created as an EPK to promote the show before it aired. That said, it’s still interesting, which is more than can be said for the usual EPK stuff. Rogers and Downey discuss how when they conceived Leverage, there was no fun con show on tv "the way there was back on the Seventies." They have to mean Mission: Impossible, but for whatever reason they don’t mention it by name. (And this is a Paramount DVD, the same as the Missions, so I can’t imagine why!) Christian Kane name-checks some other influences, including Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 12 and The A-Team. The comparison to the latter is certainly apt: Kane points out that both shows center on a group of reformed lawbreakers who, because of one man with a plan, decide to use their specialized skills for good. We also learn that the producers hired an actual con man as a consultant: Apollo Robbins, a professional pickpocket who, like Nate Ford, uses his talents for good. Robbins, in turn, recruited some actual thieves and cons out of prisons to lend their expertise! Robbins and the producers reveal that Beth Riesgraf had the best natural ability for pickpocketing and thievery, with Gina Bellman coming in second.

Most episodes feature a few deleted scenes, and as with most deleted material, they vary in quality. Some of them are quite enjoyable, like a rejected opening for the pilot wherein a drunk Nate interviews for a job at a hardware store, while others seem unnecessary–even as deleted scenes–like the multiple improvised takes of Hardisson trying to stall the security guards from searching his truck in "The Homecoming Job." Overall, though, the deleted material is a welcome inclusion. The rest of the extras are basically filler, but Beth Riesgraf’s "Crazy Actress" parody is a pretty funny little spoof video with Riesgraf presenting her "ideas" to the writers while freaking out when they dare to make eye contact with her. Her ideas include things like Parker morphing into a shark and being called "Sharker," which she illustrates with some humorous finned swimming pantomime.

Less humorous is "Leverage Gets Renewed," an unappealing slice of network publicity in which Devlin tricks the actors into meeting early one morning (some via videophone) to be told by a network exec (also via videophone) that the show is renewed. Then it’s a love-fest with everyone saying great things about the network, the show and each other for the benefit of the TV cameras. Luckily it’s just a few minutes.

Are you a working or budding Director of Photography or Cinematographer? If so, then the final featurette, "The Cameras of Leverage," is for you. If you’re not, well, I can’t imagine anyone else who would be into this. It’s a two-minute montage of pure camera porn: lingering beauty shots of fancy digital cameras set to music, with no narration or explanation from a DP or anything. I suspect it was created as a promo reel for the company that provides the cameras for the show to use at trade shows or something.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the packaging. Regular readers know well that packaging is important to me, in books, DVDs, everything. From time to time I fly in the face of the old adage and review books by their covers, and I occasionally mention packaging in my DVD reviews–though usually only when it’s bad. But I haven’t really done enough of that lately, and Paramount’s release of Leverage: The 1st Season gives me the opportunity to talk about what I see as a very good trend in DVD packaging: "flippers." I love flippers! Paramount was the first studio to embrace these cases, which manage to pack three to six discs inside a case the width of a standard DVD. This ingenious innovation has changed the face of television DVDs. As someone who owns thousands of them, I am big on space-saving techniques. The unnecessary size of regular DVD cases has always annoyed me (I wish studios had been brave enough to use slimpacks as the standard size to begin with), and the bulkiness of old TV-on-DVD packages is infuriating. Look at the original release of Alias: Season One, which packs three full-size DVD cases into a box. Or the early, ultra-clunky gatefold packaging on 24! You could fit four of 24: Season 6 (mercifully packed in a flipper) in the space occupied by the original release of Season 1!

Anway, Leverage comes in a four-disc flipper and it’s very well packaged. All of the discs are on the flippers themselves, leaving the clear interior walls of the case free and clear so it’s possible to read the episode descriptions written on the reverse of the jacket. You don’t have to lift any discs out to find out what episodes are on them; it’s all right there. The whole flipper is then packed into a cardboard O-Ring sleeve, which doesn’t take up any extra space, but does make the set stand out as something special. Well done, Paramount! This is textbook TV-on-DVD packaging. I wouldn’t want the series to change design midway through, but I do wish that they’d come up with these designs prior to releasing Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O and The Wild Wild West! That would have saved quite a lot space on my shelf. The only downside to this series’ packaging is that for some reason the list of bonus features on the back neglects to mention the real meat of the set: the audio commentaries on all thirteen episodes! Odd.

Inside and out, from the show itself to the bonus content to the packaging, this is a high-quality release of a really fun show. And it’s a bargain at less than thirty bucks on Amazon. If you’re a fan of Mission: Impossible, or you enjoy the way that Burn Notice has reinvented an old formula for the 21st century, then you should definitely give Leverage a try as well.


Anonymous said...

Referring to Mark Sheppard as a "Burn Notice Alum" is like referring to William Shatner as a "Twilight Zone Alum". Mark has had recurring guest roles in several TV shows including "24", "Medium","Firefly" and others. He is most known for his recurring role as Romo Lampkin on "Battlestar Galactica". While Mark Sheppard was great in his guest-starring role on "Burn Notice" he only appreared in one episode of the series.

Tanner said...

This is a spy blog, and I contextualize all actors by their past spy roles whenever possible, hence mentioning The Falcon and the Snowman for Timothy Hutton and 24 for Kari Matchett, etc. The whole review compares Leverage to Burn Notice, so it makes sense to mention an actor's Burn Notice connection. Plus, as you point out, Sheppard was indeed great in his Burn guest spot. And for the record, if I were to mention William Shatner I would probably cite his Mission: Impossible or Man From UNCLE roles instead of Star Trek!

Anonymous said...

Okay, thanks for the explaination. I came to your site through a search on Mark Sheppard's name. "24" was definately a bigger spy series related role than BN but seeing as you are comparing the series it makes sense. I gotta say I love "Leverage" (however I have not really watched BN since season one except for the episode with Mark). Season Two hasn't been as good as season One so far but I'm hoping it will improve.

Tanner said...

No problem--and welcome to the Double O Section! You should really check out more of Burn Notice. It's only gotten better since the beginning! I like it much better than 24, personally. Yeah, I suppose Season 2 of Leverage hasn't been up to the best of Season 1 so far, but it's still fun. I really liked the VERY Mission: Impossible episode that aired recently, where they isolated a crook in an abandonned hospital wing and convinced him that he had some sort of plague in order to find out the location of his stolen loot.

Anonymous said...

When "Leverage" premiered we were in the middle of watching the BBC series "Hustle" (presented by AMC, the movie channel also running "Madmen" and the upcoming "Prisoner"). I saw "Leverage" as the 'American' version of "Hustle", and a weaker version at that (as you said, it is a 'lighter' program, on purpose). Now, having read your review, I will have to go back and check the program out again since I gave up on it after the second episode. Thanks for the review... hcc