Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Twenty Pounds of Crazy in a Five Pound Bag (Leverage)

You know how sometimes you love a show so much that you never finish watching it? Like, I still haven't seen the last three episodes of Pushing Daisies. Why? Because after I watch those last three episodes, it's over. There will be no more Pushing Daisies for me to watch. 

And while a huge part of me is super OCD and really wants to cross that show off of my incredibly massive and ever expanding list, there's another sentimental part of me that refuses. That can't watch those last three episodes. That doesn't want the magic to end.

Last week I finally watched the last season of Leverage, a show I have loved since before its first episode, and while the show is now, for me, definitely over, I'm happy to report that it ended in such a way as to make sure it lives on.

Okay that was really confusingly worded. What I mean is that while I have now seen all of the Leverage there is to see, the ending was good. Better than good, it was great. And it ended the same way it started, which means that somewhere out there I get to pretend the show is still going on and the Leverage crew are still out there doing good things, and everything is just fine and dandy.

And I'm going to keep telling myself that even as I sniffle loudly into my comforter. For the record, this isn't going to be a review so much as a love letter. You have been warned.

For the uninitiated, of which there are probably more than a few, Leverage is (was) an hour long heist show that aired on TNT. It follows five criminals who have decided to use their criminal superpowers to help normal people get one over on The Man. It was also kind of weird and kooky and much stranger and less commercial than your average show, even on TNT, and was constantly in danger of being cancelled. Like, constantly. I remember being sure it was over after season two. Shockingly, however, and with much thanks to a healthy amount of product placement (I'm pretty sure that seasons four and five were literally sponsored by the city of Portland, Oregon), the show managed five whole seasons. And that's awesome.

The show has a pretty basic setup - five former bad guys all team up to fight evil in the form of mean nasty corporations and rich people - but the real magic in Leverage wasn't the weekly episodes. I mean, don't get me wrong, those episodes are freaking awesome, and the cons are amazing. It's a show where almost every single episode ends in a Xanatos Gambit (or a Batman Gambit or Xanatos Gambit Speed Chess, but that's getting technical), and where the writing is freaking spot on all the time. I mean, imagine getting to watch Ocean's Eleven every week.  It's so beautiful. I want to stroke its cheek and hold it forever and ever and ever.

Sorry. Got a little creepy there.

Like I said, the real joy of Leverage isn't in the awesome cons or even in watching rich people get what's coming to them (the loss of their money and occasionally jail time) every week. It's in seeing the ways that the characters interact with each other and seeing how being together, helping people, and being a family change them all.

It's part of the conceit of the show, actually. You see, the supposed main character (we'll have more on that in a minute) is Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton). Nate is a former insurance investigator for a major company, and during his time at IYS he investigated a lot of criminals at the top of their fields. He ran into Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman), a stunningly talented grifter who is also a terrible actor when she's not robbing people blind. Oh, and Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane - the reason I tuned in in the first place), a "hitter", or the muscle, who happens to have very strong feelings about why guns are bad and oh by the way he's a gourmet chef. And terrifying.

And then there's Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), an alarmingly talented hacker and computers expert, who lives off of orange soda and stolen sandwiches (sorry, Eliot), and once missed a con because he was up late watching Doctor Who.

But mostly, there's Parker (Beth Riesgraf), a thief of the highest order (she literally has kleptomania and is in one episode put on Prozac, which cures her, but also makes her mildly psychotic-er). She's deadpan and deeply divorced from the human spectrum of emotion, mostly as a result of her horrific childhood, and she kind of sort of likes jumping off of buildings. Also money. Parker is probably the closest thing this show has to a real protagonist, and we'll have more on that later. Anyway.

Anyway. Nate Ford is the only one of these guys who isn't a criminal, but that's mostly a technicality. When he wants to do a job, and he finds out that he can do it with these specialists, all of them top of their field, he pulls them in. He makes them work together. 

He teaches them how to be good. And in the process, sure, he becomes a little bad. But together they make something. They make a firm. They help people. They help each other. They make a family.

I'm going to let you in on a secret. I came because I love heist shows and movies, and because Christian Kane is dreamy. But I stayed because the relationship between Nate and Parker is one of my favorite things on television, and Parker's story is why the show works at all.

So when the show starts, it obviously has to start with the "meet cute" for all our little criminals. And they all get an introduction that shows you who they really are. We see Sophie being crowned royalty of some tiny European country, Eliot disarming ten men over a baseball card and then casually sipping coffee, and Hardison hacking a hotel and playing Jedi with a bunch of cute girls. And Parker? We see her stealing stuff. Which seems really tame in comparison. Until you see everyone else's reaction to her.

That she's legendary. That she's terrifying. That she is pants-wettingly insane. And here's the thing. The show doesn't disagree with any of those assessments. Parker is legendary, terrifying, and completely insane. She's also a scared little girl who is so afraid of being hurt that she's forgotten how to have feelings at all. She doesn't know how to like things. She's pretty much a feral cat.

And there's a part of me that would be bothered by that, that would kind of hate seeing this awesome female character who's really just scared and needs loved, if that didn't actually describe all of the rest of the characters as well. The only differences here is that Parker is a lot further gone than the rest of them, and that we get to see her come back.

Like when they run a job on a con group doing human trafficking out of Eastern Europe. Parker immediately relates to these kids, who have family and home and shelter dangled over their heads only to be drawn further into a scheme, and she decides to save them. No questions just, "I don't care if you don't help me, I am going back for those kids." And she does. She saves them.

But in that same episode she also stabs a man with a fork and about an episode later she calls a girl fat, and it's clear that our little Parker has a long, long way to go.

The thing is, the character development on this show never stops. It never stagnates because the writers are too afraid of changing the dynamic they already have. It's the rare case of a show where the writers are actually paying attention and willing to go there. Parker has never spent a lot of time around people who get her, so when she does, she starts to change. The show gives us that.

It gives us the first time Parker makes a real friend, one who doesn't do crime. It gives us the first time Parker goes on a date, an actual for realsies date with a nice boy (who happens to be Hardison). It shows us Parker getting excited for Christmas. It shows us how that one date turns into a real relationship, with feelings and fights and growth. It shows us Parker wanting to change. It shows us Parker learning how to like things, really like them. 

But most of all, this show gives us Parker healing. Growing past the wounds inflicted on her, and learning to help other people.

Like there's this whole subplot, that runs through the whole show and is absolutely adorable, where Parker and Hardison had to take on FBI cover identities for a con, but on the con they ran into real FBI agents. Fortunately, the FBI agents were kind of terrible and didn't realize Parker and Hardison were faking. The real FBI agents end up getting credit for all the team does, and everyone is happy. And then they run into them again. And again. And again. 

Each time Parker (usually Parker) has to convince them to help with the con, and each time the agents get the credit. But they never turn out to be bad guys or anything. Just a little dim. One of them, Agent McSweeten, even has a crush on her, awwww. It's doubly funny because this is early Parker, who has no filter and is wildly inappropriate.

Here's the real thing, though. The show doesn't keep this as a simple gag. No, after five years, Parker and McSweeten actually know each other pretty well. Well enough that McSweeten actually comes to her for help. And Parker, far past seeing him as a weird and pathetic loser like she did when they met, likes him. She respects him. He's a genuinely good guy, and she wants to help him.

For a girl like Parker, who puts the crazy in "so crazy I can't even think of an appropriate metaphor", that's huge. And it is so, so gratifying to watch happen.

I'm not going to lie, the finale of this show made me cry. Not because of the fakeout where they pretend everyone died (seriously, who fell for that?) but for the bit after, where Sophie and Nate take a much deserved retirement, and Parker takes over Leverage International. Because that's the point where we see what all this was about. Nate took Parker in. He taught her how to be a daughter, and then he set her free.

I'm having so many feelings right now, guys. All of the feelings.

It's the rare show that is able to admit that people change over time, and allows its characters to grow and develop. But it's the much, much rarer show that understands that people growing and changing isn't the B plot. It's the main attraction. Parker's emotional stability is the reason you watch the show. That and seeing Nate wrestle his demons. Watching Sophie find herself outside the con. Seeing Hardison become a man and not just a little boy playing with his toys. Watching Eliot slow down, stop looking over his shoulder, find some peace. That's what you tune in for. That's the point of it all.

I really do wish more shows understood that. I think there'd be a lot more appealing television if they did. But until they do, Leverage is on Netflix Instant, and I dare you, I just dare you, not to fall in love with Parker. She is, after all, twenty pounds of crazy in a five pound bag.

You crazy kids. (Literally).


  1. OH Boy!!! Now I have something to watch on my 12 hr train ride!!!! Thanks again for a wonderful new show to watch!

    1. Yay! I'm sure you're going to love it!

      Also, that is one gnarly train ride. Where are you going?

  2. We just finished watching it last week. I agree with everything you're saying.

    1. Really? I thought you guys finished this last year...

  3. On your rec, I'm watching the first five on hulu (I just let my Netflix go to dvd only, because itwaseatingmylife...) and I think your comment on the Ocean's Eleven feel is dead on--even the music is similar.

    I think what is sealing it for me is the insurance company/dead son angle. I too am motivated by some gnarly feelings--rarely, but still--and I always like it when good people go bad. And vice versa.

    So good call, as usual :)

    1. Yay, I'm so glad you like it! It's a happy show, and whoa are there feels. I love feels. :DDD

  4. Ha! Take that, Netflix addiction... Yeah, I watched the entire first season yesterday on Hulu. And it was worth it :)

    1. How's that whole "cutting back" thing working out for you? :DDD

    2. Uggggghhhh... I just finished the last episode and... I am sad.

      And screwing up my 'cut back' was TOTALLY WORTH IT :) That show was amazing. No regrets.

    3. Wow, that was impressively quick!

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