If you’re looking for a fun, funny TV show where the bad guys are the heads of opioid-pushing or price-gouging pharmaceutical companies and luxury apartment building developers and the ruthless security companies the big corporations hire, a heads up: Season two of Leverage: Redemption arrives on Nov. 16.
Season one of this show offered villains modeled on Elon Musk (with a touch of Elizabeth Holmes) and Martin Shkreli. It went in on white supremacists and corrupt cops and a lifestyle scammer and a corrupt court-appointed conservator. It did all of that with glee and with loving portrayals of its main characters and their relationships. If that’s a good fit for your interests, season two feels like a good bet. (Also if you’ve ever wanted to see Levar Burton as a small-town librarian drawn into a spy plot, there’s an episode for you.)
The original Leverage, which ran from 2008 to 2012 on TNT and has become a cult favorite, centered on a group of criminals who came together, led by an embittered former insurance investigator, to help people wronged by the powerful. A Robin Hood story, essentially. As they explain in the original series, “People like that, corporations like that, they have all the money, they have all the power, and they use it to make people like you go away. Right now, you’re suffering under an enormous weight. We provide … leverage.”
Leverage: Redemption gets the gang—or most of it—back together a decade down the road. Originally, it was hitter, hacker, grifter, thief, and mastermind in the characters of Eliot (Christian Kane), Hardison (Aldis Hodge), Sophie (Gina Bellman), Parker (Beth Riesgraf), Nate (Timothy Hutton). At the end of the original series, Nate and Sophie, as an engaged couple, leave the team. But the team continues its work. We learn in the first episode of Redemption that there are now 12 teams, working internationally. In the wake of Nate’s death, though, Eliot and Parker and Hardison try to help a mourning Sophie by pulling her into a new crime for the public good.
The new show comes with two significant casting changes. Timothy Hutton, the mastermind leading the group in the original series, is gone, his character killed off after rape allegations surfaced against the actor. That loss was a big positive for Redemption. Hutton’s character, Nate, was an ongoing irritation, his troubled past and alcoholism and their role in his relationship with Sophie, the grifter played by Gina Bellman, providing many of the show’s most contrived attempts to go for emotion and depth. When not being called on to over-emote, Hutton played the role as a collection of tics. Noah Wyle, who in a sense fills the gap left by Hutton, may not have won an Academy Award as a 20-year-old (or ever), but at this point in their respective careers, he’s the better actor and by far the better team player.
On the other hand, Aldis Hodge, who played the hacker Hardison, has become too successful to appear in every episode, and he is missed. Hardison, and his chemistry with Parker and Eliot, was a consistent high point, and it was a delight when he did show up in episodes of the first season of Leverage: Redemption. But his replacement as the group’s hacker, Breanna, played by Aleyse Shannon, starts off entertaining and grew on me steadily.
What Wyle’s Harry and Shannon’s Breanna offer, in both cases, is a character growing into their role in the group of righteous criminals. They’re learning as they go, both how to crime and their place in the group. That in turn helps keep the relationships between the returning characters from falling too securely into a comfortable rut. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great rut, but it is good to watch them adapt.
Along with the new form of the team, the passing of a decade has changed how two of the original characters operate in significant ways. In the original series, one of Sophie’s angles as a grifter was that she was supposedly so attractive that she had only to saunter into a room to have the mark on the hook. It was frankly another of the show’s weaknesses—lazy and often improbable. A decade on, Gina Bellman is still a beautiful woman, but the show isn’t relying on that so heavily, and her new role as the mastermind (despite the fact that she’s been out of the game while everyone else has continued to provide leverage) gives her more interesting things to do. Eliot, meanwhile, remains almost as unbeatable as a fighter—but the effort shows a little more, and the recovery is harder. Time has changed Eliot in another way, too: For the first time he ends up in a real relationship. Parker, meanwhile, is operating without her longtime partner, Hardison, and leans on her friendship with Eliot.
The team as a whole adapts, also, to a new world of wealthy predators. In the first season, as they come back together, they emphasize that “These bad guys are worse than ever,” in Parker’s words.
“These people you pursue, they don’t just cheat anymore,” Harry says. “They wrote the rules.”
That’s the premise of Leverage: Redemption: We thought the big corporations and rich bad guys were bad a decade ago. But now they’re worse and the system is designed to accommodate that.
And the main characters understand that they themselves are not purely good. That’s what the “redemption” is about. Their good deeds are meant to redeem their past bad ones. It’s a particularly relevant concept for Noah Wyle’s Harry, a lawyer who has become disillusioned after spending 15 years representing awful clients. He is helpful to them in several cases because he helped the bad guy of the episode cover up their bad deeds to begin with.
“My whole life I prided myself on never picking a side,” Harry says in the first episode of season one. “I’m beginning to think all those years, maybe I had.” He goes on to learn just how true that is as he works to take down the very people he once protected from consequences.
What the Leverage team can do to right wrongs is like bailing a sinking boat with a thimble—it’s personal redemption for Harry and the rest, and help to specific individuals, but not wholesale change. “My friends specialize in fixing problems that the system won’t,” Harry says in the season two trailer, but the bad guys are still writing the rules, and shaping the system.
It’s a damn good fantasy, though. As Harry says in the first season’s second episode, distracting the mark as Parker breaks into a safe, “When did I, a corporate lawyer with 15 years of experience with this firm, suddenly become a jaunty cat burglar stealing from the rich?”
“That would be cool,” a nearby receptionist says.
”That would be cool,” Harry answers. Yeah.
Leverage: Redemption is on Amazon Freevee.
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