Beth Riesgraf (l) and Timothy Hutton of 'Leverage'
TNT"s new series, Leverage, starring Timothy Hutton, is a worthy entry in two classic narrative traditions—the caper story and the vigilante tale.

It’s perfectly appropriate, I suppose, that a TV show about a gang of thieves should consist of elements taken from countless films and tv programs of the near and distant past. TNT’s Leverage is exactly that, but that makes it not only more fun but also more interesting.

The new action-adventure series, premiering tomorrow night at 10 EST, stars Timothy Hutton (Nero Wolfe) as the leader of, in TNT’s apt description, "a team of thieves, hackers and grifters who act as modern-day Robin Hoods, taking revenge against those who use power and wealth to victimize others."

As I noted two decades ago in Chronicles magazine and have mentioned frequently in various analyses since then, vigilante narratives have long been a powerful element of American popular culture, exploring concerns about breakdowns of legitimate political authority and how these lead to, one, more crime and social disorder, and, two, uprisings of popular sentiment in favor of fictional and real-life heroes who stand against these things even though government actively opposes their efforts.

That is why, for example, our society includes such disparate characters as Jesse James, Batman, and the Equalizer in its pantheon of popular heroes.

Leverage is firmly in this tradition, albeit less violent than these examples, and it adds to the mixture some of the current popular suspicion against corporations lacking of a sense of public responsibility and willingness to put concerns for fairness and long-term beneficence over the pursuit of immediate bottom-line profits.

Hutton plays a former insurance investigator who has recovered millions of dollars for his past employer, but when he needed their help, the company for whom he worked denied his insurance claims for some experimental medical procedures for his son, which he believes resulted directly in the child’s death.

It’s a serviceable conceit, and the sort of thing that does happen in this imperfect world, although I dislike fictions that characterize business in general as inherently corrupt. Actually, it’s clear that the incentives for business are strongly biased toward keeping customers safe and satisfied and avoiding problems, which they usually go to great lengths to do.

Nonetheless, in the present case, as I say, it’s plausible given that the character’s mindset is what we need to accept, not agree that he’s correct, and that’s all we need to ask of that. We shall have to wait for further installments of the thirteen-episode initial season before we know whether corporations become formulaic baddies or the show’s creators are smarter and more realistic than that. We shall of course hope for the latter.

That said, the initial episode’s real appeal is in its twisty story, interesting and sympathetic central characters, suspenseful and dramatic heist scheme, and new angles on timeless moral issues and dilemmas.

The show also benefits strongly from inclusion of just the right amount of wit and humor, which prevents the viewer from thinking too deeply about the basic logic behind the caper scheme. In all, Leverage has a terrific mid-1960s feel, that powerfully American sense that smart and valiant people on the side of what’s right can accomplish just about anything. It’s a myth, of course, but one with a big grain of truth and which encourages a sense of optimism and can-do attitude that we could use a good deal more of these days.

Thus, as noted earlier, the show reminds the viewer of films and TV programs such as Mission: Impossible (the ’60s TV program, not the movies after the first installment), The Man from UNCLE, T.H.E Cat, It Takes a Thief, The Pink Panther, How to Steal a Million, Rififi, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, The Thomas Crown Affair, and numerous others from the mid-1960s heyday of caper films and programs, along with the plethora of contemporary remakes and sequels.

The theme and background music are particularly evocative, as they are strongly reminiscent of Lalo Schifrin’s excellent theme music for the Mission: Impossible TV series. In its fond recreation of the stylish, witty caper narratives of the mid-1960s, Leverage is also reminiscent of the excellent recent BBC show Hustle (which I urge you to see if you haven’t already done so).

As with the overwhelming majority of heist or caper narratives, both the schemes and the drama of Leverage depend strongly on the creation of a team of brilliant and eccentric individuals. Thus Hutton’s character, Nathan Ford, is the sensible and morally engaged leader of a team of very strong individualists who are experts in burglary, martial arts, computers, gymnastics, acting (of a very specialized type: confidence trickery), and the like. Separately, each is very talented, but together they are capable of impressive feats, thus suggesting the genius of a society of ordered liberty and free markets, where creating an order (Ford’s job) that allows each individual to reach their fullest potential makes for a much more productive world than one based on either too much liberty or too much order.

Ford makes this connection explicit in the premiere episode, saying, "I’m the one with the plan. I know you children don’t play well together, but I need you to hold it together for exactly seven more minutes."

The show’s and protagonist’s sense of justice compose another important thematic element. Ford’s concern for justice and intense desire to help the downtrodden prevent Leverage from becoming a mere carnival or, worse yet, a forum for antinomianism. Ford takes on the job in the premiere episode with the understanding that it is the just and right thing to do—restoring a stolen airplane design to its rightful owner.

Again, whether the client’s claim of having been robbed is true or not is immaterial to the morality of Ford’s decision to take on the task; all that matters is that he has overwhelming reason to believe it and that he is taking on the job in good faith without negligent ignorance, which he certainly does in the case at hand. And the fact that Ford only takes cases that right injustices ties Leverage as strongly to the vigilante tradition as to the heist form and thereby increases the narratives’ moral complexity and intelligence.

In this combination of heist and vigilante elements, Leverage is perhaps most reminsicent of Erle Stanley Gardner‘s great confidence trickster characters, notably Lester Leith and Ed Jenkins. Leith is one of the great characters of the pulp fiction era, and his employment of elaborate schemes through which to recover swag from crooks (and earn himself a hefty finder’s fee) is a direct precursor to the central idea of Leverage.

As with most caper narratives, what Leverage conveys most viscerally is a great joy in virtuosity, an appreciation of brilliance in doing a job of any kind, of seeing real talent in action. We Americans love to see people do gr
eat and difficult things, providing avid audiences for everything from professional football to eating contests and human flies. Through the combining of vigilante and caper elements, Leverage vividly conveys the beauty of virtuosity while exploring the moral complexities involved in human freedom.

That’s a rather difficult thing to do, too, and watching Leverage gives us a chance to appreciate that.