'Leverage' Puts Its Weight Behind a Team of Reformed Criminals

Timothy Hutton leads a team of reformed criminals whose skills are helping to do good.
Timothy Hutton leads a team of reformed criminals whose skills are helping to do good. (By Richard Foreman -- Tnt)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

Although it starts out on a glib, dopey note -- as "Mission: Preposterous" crossed with "Ocean's Eleven" -- the new TNT series "Leverage" develops with surprising swiftness into a decent, watchable action drama about wrongs being righted and bad guys getting what's coming to them.

That tends to be a satisfying premise wherever it pops up, because we all know that in real life, things don't always work out that way; scores have a bad habit of remaining stubbornly unsettled. In the "Leverage" premiere, airing tomorrow night, such injustices are played largely for laughs; the jokey, winky-wink tone becomes irritating in short order, as does the clumsy excess of exposition, much of it in black-and-white flashbacks that supposedly fill us in on the characters' pre-series lives.

Timothy Hutton, the star and the only readily recognizable performer, plays Nathan Ford, a former insurance investigator and the founding father of Leverage, a strange little company with enormous resources that are put to use on behalf of the firm's needy clientele. Hutton leads the proverbial elite team of specialists, but they're a criminal elite, all having proved their prowess in pursuit of perfidy.

Now's their chance to be "the good guys" for a change, Ford informs them, but late in the second episode he reminds them that good guys deserve their perks, too -- and off he zooms in a snappy little convertible. Hutton is, to be delicate, not the most imposing of presences, but he still seems young enough to carry off the part of Ford with brio and panache. Maybe he could use less brio and more panache or vice versa but what the heck, it's not like he's playing Hamlet. Or even Hamlet's next-door neighbor.

Curiously, it's the second episode (airing Tuesday night in the show's regular time slot), not the first, that establishes "Leverage's" credentials as a serviceable, sometimes sparkling piece of pop entertainment. The premise is set up much more clearly than in Sunday night's silly premiere.

No. 2 is a much less frivolous, and less fatuous, introduction to the show. The story line involves a wounded veteran of the Iraq war who videotapes a letter home without knowing that it contains clues about a dastardly scheme. The bad guys include a crooked war contractor (hardly a novelty, of course) purloining a massive stash of cash from Iraq with the help of an equally crooked congressman (imagine!). The veteran represents all those who've been given a bum deal on return from combat, and this gives the drama much-needed weight, raising the stakes and adding immeasurably to the tension.

The teammates still get to toss off the occasional witty bon mot as they go about their sneaky business, but we know they are serious about exposing the corruption and, not incidentally, making sure that the wounded veteran and many in the same straits get better care and more of it.

Both the first and second episodes introduce us to members of the team: Aldis Hodge as Alec Hardison, a high-tech whiz who is Ford's right-hand man; Beth Riesgraf as Parker, an athletic thief who can rappel down buildings; Christian Kane as Eliot Spencer, the long-haired and two-fisted maverick of the group; and Gina Bellman as Sophie Devereaux, an expert criminal mind who is also a bad actress, or so we are told -- and shown, during a funny audition sequence.

It would probably be better for viewers and for the series if everyone skips the premiere and tunes in to No. 2 as if it were No. 1, ya know? The premiere is mainly for fans of scams, heists and the kind of mischief perpetrated in the remake of "Ocean's Eleven" and its sequels. Despite the bungled beginning, "Leverage" manages the neat trick of coming to its own rescue, and in the proverbial nick of time besides.

Leverage (one hour) debuts tomorrow on TNT at 10 p.m. The second episode airs Tuesday at 10, its regular time slot.

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