8/11/11

Leverage: First Impressions

"Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys."
Last week, I posted a brief synopsis of the BBC series Hustle, in which a team of conmen take on the undesirable elements of society who abuse their wealth and power – and separate these unquenchable Scrooges from a considerable amount of dough. Overall, it's a superb series with fun characters, cleverly constructed, multi-layered plots and a brisk tong-in-cheek style. So when I read there was an American counterpart to this series, entitled Leverage, I perked up and immediately placed an order for the first season box-set. The first disc just stopped spinning and it left me with mixed feelings. 

We provide... leverage
First of all, the series has the same unpretentious, facetious tone (even when there's a darker, more serious edge to a story) and the characters are every bit as much fun as their European brethrens. The main objective of this series evidently lies in filling up nearly an hour with unadulterated amusement, however, it misses the cleverness and labrythine plotting of Hustle.  

But let us begin with lining up the suspects and identifying them: Timothy Hutton assumes the role of the crew's mastermind, Nathan "Nate" Ford, who was an insurance fraud investigator until his employer refused to cough up the cash needed to provide his son with life saving medical treatment – resulting in the kids untimely passing. The aftermath of this domestic tragedy is that Nate not only lost his son, but also his wife and career until a man hires him to lead a crack-team of criminals to do a job that would cost the insurance company who allowed his son to die a lot of money. But when they're double-crossed they band together instead of dissolving and take down their first mark as a team.

The other members of this band of criminals include the reputable grifster, who occasionally nicks valuable paintings and artifacts, Sophie Devereaux; the martial arts, fire-arms and retrieval expert Eliot Spencer; the cat burglar Parker and last, but not least, computer expert and master hacker Alec Hardison. They pool their unique talents and knowledge to provide leverage to those who've been wronged, harassed and bullied by influential individuals and domineering corporations by leveling the playing field for them – and this often includes retrieving what was taken from them or get what their targets morally owe their clients.

This is where the fact that you're watching an American series smacks you in the face. The marks are bigger, richer and wield more power and therefore the stakes and risks are a lot higher – resulting in more action based story lines and less of the Machiavellian scheming I was expecting to find in the only peer Hustle has. The plotting can be downright lazy at time! When they're faced with a hurdle, Alec simply strokes his keyboard and it's solved (because everything is online); where as the other crew work their fingers to the bone when on a long-con and their fixer never solved the really difficult tasks with such ease. Heck, in one of the episodes he was unable to bypass a seemingly perfect security system and they had to cook-up a clever plan to work around it – creating an impossible theft in the process. 

Admittedly, the last two episodes I watched, The Miracle Job and The Bank Shot Job, showed definite improvement over the first three episodes. The first one has them fabricating two miracles, making a statue of St. Nicholas cry and disappear before a full congregation, in order to save a church and the second came closest to matching their overseas counterparts – when Nate and Sophie land smack in the middle of a hostage situation during one of their cons at a small-town bank. Yeah, putting your main characters in a hostage situation is not a very innovative plot idea, but you can churn out something decent if you know how to spin it and that was definitely the case here. And the fact that this is as much a crime fantasy, which refuses to take itself too seriously, as the other series also helped making this plot work and everyone can cheer when the villain-of-the-week received his comeuppance.

Plot-wise, Leverage is just a cut below Hustle, but not any less enjoyable and I'm already foolishly keeping my fingers crossed for a continental crossover project, in which the crews of Nate Ford and Michael Stone chase the same mark. But not something as a trivial as looting a casino or bank. No, no, no! This has to be something on the same scale as Maurice Leblanc's epic 813 (1910).

Oh, one can but dream...

5 comments:

  1. I find myself unable to think of any American adaptations of English shows without thinking of Episodes, a series starring Matt LeBlanc. Then my mind immediately goes to the most ridiculous scenario possible.

    I confess my first thought when I heard of an American version of Hustle involved Michael Bay exploding something, and I'm ashamed to say I somehow wasn't completely disgusted at that idea.

    That said, having not watched Leverage, it pleases me to know it is a decent series. And upon some searching, it seems that it is one of the rare series Canadian Netflix does not seem to have vowed to murder and bury. I will give it a watch soon. Interesting and informative review!

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  2. Well, I have to admit that I am not entirely sure if Leverage was meant to be an answer to Hustle, but the striking resemblance in the tongue-in-cheek, easy-to-watch tone definitely suggests that the former was loosely modeled on the latter.

    But glancing at the DVD cover, it does give the impression of a Michael Bayish, action-orientated, explosion filled crime flick. Thankfully, it was a little bit more sophisticated than that, although, there's nothing wrong with occasionally leveling a building or a tank truck, transporting gasoline, spinning out of control – and ploughing through a suburban neighborhood or crowded shopping mall.

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  3. Leverage is one of my favourite shows at the moment, mainly because, like all the best TV shows, the cast seem to be enjoying themselves. Yes, the plots verge on the ludicrous, but I find it much more fun than the few episodes of Hustle that I've tried (and mostly failed) to watch.

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  4. Well, I admit that its not to everyone tastes, but if you enjoy Leverage and puzzle mysteries Hustle should be a winner.

    I have watched a few more episodes and it's an extremely watchable and fun series, but the writing is just plain lazy. When you're used to all the labor and mental effort the crew members of their European counterparts have to put in, you tend to get a bit annoyed at times when Alec magically fixes the problems with his amazing computer and hacking skills. Great character, by the way, but too often misused as a plot device.

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  5. Maybe I'll give Hustle another go. But without Hardison and Parker, in particular, it'll have to be very good indeed...

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