Heist capers can be a lot of fun. From Peter Ustinov's Topkapi through Steve McQueen's The Thomas Crown Affair and Robert Redford's Sneakers, right on up to Ocean's Eleven and its sequels, watching professional thieves coolly plan and carry out complicated rip-offs satisfies the larcenous urges that seem to lurk within all of us.
On the small screen, shows back in the 1960s such as It Takes a Thief and the original Mission Impossible series set the bar so high that more recent TV efforts such as Heist, Ray Liotta's Smith, and Andre Braugher's Thief all seemed to suffer by comparison. Low ratings did in each of those series after just a handful of episodes.
TV's latest attempt at a heist caper series is TNT's Leverage, which will premiere commercial-free at 10 p.m. Sunday night before moving to its regular time slot at 10 p.m. Tuesdays. The new show stars Academy Award-winner Timothy Hutton as the brooding head of a team of thieves, hackers, and grifters who target powerful people and corporations that are usually as unscrupulous as they are greedy.
Hutton plays a disillusioned former insurance company investigator named Nate Ford, who had always done a great job for his employer, recovering millions in stolen goods so the insurers could avoid having to pay claims. But when that same company denied claims for medical treatments for Ford's critically ill son and the boy died, the shattered father resigned, and his life began a bitter downward spiral.
As the premiere episode begins, a boozy Ford is unexpectedly pulled out of the doldrums by an unusual offer: An aeronautics executive wants to hire him to "recover" - in other words, steal - airplane designs that were supposedly pilfered by an industry rival. Ford would be well paid for the job, and as a bonus, the target company is insured by the same greedy outfit that formerly employed Ford, so the rip-off would also provide a measure of payback to the soulless people whom Ford blames for his son's death.
Ford accepts the assignment, but having always operated on the right side of the law, he must pull together a shady group of experienced criminals to help him carry it out. However, unlike say, Ocean's Eleven, in which George Clooney's character recruits a bunch of cool cats to help pull off his heist, Ford's crew consists of emotionally damaged loners who have never been able to work as part of a group.
There's tech wizard Alec (Aldis Hodge of Friday Night Lights), daredevil thief Parker (Beth Riesgraf), smooth-talking con woman Sophie (Gina Bellman, BBC's Coupling), and Eliot (Christian Kane, Angel), the team's muscle.
Predictably, at first the crooks can't bring themselves to trust each other - or Ford - after so many years of working alone. But when they're double-crossed by the client after the completion of their first job, the dynamic shifts and they realize that maybe they're better off working together, with the shrewd and level-headed Ford coordinating things.
After the gang turns its sights on the ex-client, he quickly figures out their game - or so he thinks. And so will most viewers. But a twist at the end is completely unexpected, and upends everybody's assumptions.
The series' second episode, which will air Tuesday, centers on a massive money-laundering scheme hatched by a crooked congressman and a shady private security company that's working for the Defense Department in Iraq. It's up to Ford & Co. to derail the operation, and they wind up diverting a good portion of the loot to an eminently worthy, and appropriate, cause.
The show's Robin Hood-type capers are a bit of a stretch, and big business - and big government, for that matter - are painted in stark black and white. The shades of gray are supplied by Hutton and his merry band of miscreants, who may be disreputable but remain likeable nonetheless.
Based on the series' first two episodes, Leverage is fast-paced, smart, nuanced, and just plain fun. The plotting is clever, and the cons, heists, and burglaries provide enough twists and hold-your-breath moments to maintain viewer interest. Hutton is perfect as the cynical, yet principled, lead character, and his supporting cast plays well off one another.
The series, filmed in Chicago, is produced by Dean Devlin, who helped create the mega-hit movie Independence Day as well as TNT's Librarian movie series with Noah Wyle, the latest of which will premiere Sunday night immediately before the debut of Leverage. Devlin knows how to tell a dramatic story leavened with a little humor, and he knows how to make action scenes believable, too.
Leverage appears to have plenty of promise, but it has a long way to go before establishing itself as a cable drama that approaches the level of The Shield, Rescue Me, Damages, Mad Men, or this season's excellent Sons of Anarchy. But with all the right ingredients in place, at least it has a chance.