Review By Elizabeth C. Bunce
Two of my favorite TV shows made their season premieres this week: TNT’s Leverage began its fourth season, with USA’s Burn Notice moving easily into its fifth. Anyone who’s seen at least a couple episodes of both series can’t fail to recognize that they’re pretty much the same show. They’re both basically an update of The A-Team: a crew of lovable outcasts who use their unconventional skills to help desperate people fight back against the corrupt and powerful. I remember The A-Team as being rather campy, so I hope that Leverage and Burn Notice are a little more sophisticated than the ’80s cult favorite I recall from my childhood, although Hardison’s van, Lucille, does look a little familiar.
That said, clearly it’s a formula that works as well in the 2010s as it did thirty years ago, or we would not have two such successful parallels airing simultaneously on competing cable networks. Even in cable, it takes a lot to make it to a fourth and fifth season–not the least important being loyal viewers. And speaking as one of those loyal viewers, I’m excited to have both shows back.
Burn Notice: Company Man joins out-in-the-cold-of-Miami hero Michael Westen working with the CIA team trying to track down the mysterious people responsible for framing him for the dastardly crimes of madman Simon Escher. It was nice to see Michael back inside for an episode, and nicer still to see the burn notice plotline take center stage for once (instead of being the ongoing series subplot to the “Desperate Client of the Week” main storylines). Typically, when longterm plotlines are “resolved” in TV series, they’re done kind of ham-handedly, leaving viewers dissatisfied with the writers’ efforts to round off the throughlines that have built tension and momentum for the series. Not so with Company Man. I was impressed by both the handling of Michael working for the CIA (not as an agent, but as a civilian asset, something I, at least, found totally convincing), as well as the way in which they left Michael’s storyline unresolved. We feel we got what we wanted from last year’s setup, without sacrificing the core of the show we love so much. Michael, Fiona, Sam, and Mrs. Westen will continue to look out for the exploited citizens of Miami, and Michael still has questions left to answer from his past. Last season’s rookie member, Jesse Porter, played by Coby Bell, returned for the briefest of brief appearances, and although he didn’t have a role in this episode’s story, the writers made it clear he’ll stay part of the team. I wasn’t altogether thrilled by Sam and Fiona’s roles in the episode; the wounded friend routine felt juvenile and out of place. These people are professional soldiers; pouting over being left out of a mission is something I’d expect from Buffy’s adolescent Scooby Gang, not an ex-Navy Seal and IRA gunrunner. Overall, it was an excellent conclusion to last year’s cliffhanger, and a smooth transition into Season Five.
As for Leverage, the criminal gang is back for more of the same. In The Long Way Down Job, the crew “steals a mountain. Again…” foiling a crooked investor (and probable murderer) in a mountain climbing adventure that would do the old A-Team proud! I’ve been a big Leverage fan since the beginning –can’t resist a great heist– but as much as I love the gang and the schtick, I confess I’m often left vaguely disappointed in the episodes and series as a whole. Though there have been some terrific episodes (last season’s Rashomon Job was the show at its best), and it’s fun to see familiar faces in guest appearances (from Saul Rubinek of Warehouse 13, to Star Trek’s Q, John deLancie, and last night’s Eric Stoltz) I hardly ever feel that it lives up to its full potential, and I’m not entirely sure why that is. The cast is great, with Beth Riesgraf, Christian Kane, and Aldis Hodge being the clear standouts. And maybe that’s my problem. “Mastermind” Timothy Hutton should be the standout star; he has the talent and he has the chops and he’s clearly billed as the leader, and yet… sigh. Maybe it’s unfair of me, but every time I watch an episode, I find myself wishing it was Nero Wolfe. Hutton’s turn as Archie Goodwin…
…may be one of my alltime favorite TV performances (and from a life spent watching as much TV as I do, that’s saying something!). He sparkled in that role and took a wonderful show to something sublime. For whatever reason, Nathan Ford just doesn’t do it for me.
All of that aside, I do respect the Leverage team’s efforts to raise the stakes with the series–Season Three’s ongoing series plotline about international criminal Damien Moreau was ambitious, and certainly led the crew to some interesting locales and episodes, and yet it, too, didn’t really work for me. Typically, raising the stakes for your characters and your plot is one of the most important components of better, more compelling storytelling. So it should work, but I felt like the Moreau storyline was forced and inauthentic–trying to make Leverage something it’s not. I’m not entirely sure what it is, and it doesn’t always achieve whatever it’s trying to do… but I’m still a fan, and I’m still going to keep watching. Because whatever silly, convoluted plot they have up their sleeves, I want to see Eliot and Hardison sparring. I want to watch Parker fumble her way through being a normal person. And, against my will, I even want to see Nate Ford grow as a character.