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You Can't Con a Con Man If You Don't Even Try

By Dustin Rowles | TV | July 20, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | July 20, 2009 |

After running through the entire series of both “Burn Notice” and “Psych,” I became desperate to find a modest replacement for my summer television watching needs. I don’t ask for much: Compelling storylines, charismatic characters, a good hook, and self-contained episodes. The summer is no time to get involved with a serial drama, which I learned back in May with “Breaking Bad” (unbelievably great series, but goddamn, it’s heavy). With season two of TNT’s “Leverage” debuting last week, it seemed as good time as any to give it a shot, although TNT’s slate hasn’t impressed me at all yet (“Raising the Bar” and “HawthoRNe” are too generic, and “The Closer,” combines blandness with terrible actressin’).

I gave “Leverage” eight episodes to hook me (I really wanted to be hooked), but, alas, like the other TNT dramas, this one is aimed at an audience that has no interest being entertained. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out the demographic for “Leverage.” It’s not dumb so much as it’s dull. It’s flat and uninspiring — it’s a con show for the same people who like “Walker: Texas Ranger” or “Xena: The Warrior Princess.” They want to believe it’s a con; they just don’t want to try to follow along. It’s playing in an intelligent genre, but it’s out of its depth. But I’d forgive all of that if it had even an ounce of wit or charm. Unfortunately, it’s “The A-Team” without any of the guilt or the pleasure. The only thing it leaves you feeling is apathy.

Timothy Hutton, who is easier and easier to confuse with Campbell Scott as they both age, stars as Nathan Ford, a former insurance investigator who lost his job and wife to alcohol and his son to an illness his insurance company wouldn’t provide benefits for. In the world of “Leverage,” insurance investigators are on equal footing with spies — they use covert operations and bullets, apparently, to ensure that policies are invalidated by fraud. And by the looks of Hutton, they also stop shampooing their hair.

Through a convoluted series of event (meant to disguise their illogic), Nathan hooks up with four felons — the muscle, Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane); the tech geek Hardison (Aldis Hodge); the thief, Parker (Beth Reisgraf); and the grifter, Sophie (Gina Bellman) — who decide, after a huge multimillion dollar score, to use their skills to protect the poor from the wealthy. Nathan is their ringleader, and as such, many of the cases revolve around the exciting world of insurance fraud. And similar to “Burn Notice,” the “Leverage” tea — working outside of the law — doesn’t aim to kill their enemies, but to set a trap so that the baddies hang themselves on their own rope.

One of the bigger problems with the show is that the cons aren’t particularly well developed. The writers provide the illusion of long cons — the characters take on fake identities, pick a few pockets, and hack a couple of computers — but there’s not a lot of misdirection. They just dress up as caterers, poker players or wealthy businessman and deliver incredibly bad accents long enough to discover a briefcase full of money. They take money, give it to the poor people, and blame the wealthy people for the thefts, who are shipped off to prison.

But flimsy plotlines and leaps of logic can be forgiven if the cast is charming enough (see, e.g., Shawn, Gus, Michael Weston, and Sam Axe). But these characters are worse than glum and self-serious — they actually attempt to nod in the direction of the occasional quip or one-liner, but they fall flatter than Kiera Knightley’s chest under a limbo pole. They sort of want to be goofy, but it’s not within their range as actors, so it all comes off like a bad knock-knock joke at a Congressional hearing. The only character with an ounce of personality is Hardison, the tech guy, but he’s also the worst actor of the bunch (some may recognize him as Ray Voodoo Tatum from “Friday Night Lights.”) Timothy Hutton, meanwhile, mopes through most of his scenes, as though staring off into the distance at his 30-year-old Oscar and hoping someone will give him his movie career back.

Indeed, “Leverage” very desperately wants to be Ocean’s 11 for the small screen, but it lacks the breeze and the humor, nor does it have the cheese of “The A-Team,” which is sad because this is the rare show that could benefit from some camp. The drama comes from Dean Devlin, the one-time producing partner of Roland Emmerich. Unfortunately, “Leverage” doesn’t even have the over-the-top stupidity of their partnership. There’s no spectacle here, just blah.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.