Unlike their counterparts on The Definite-Indefinite Article-Team, the Robin Hoods on John Rogers and Chris Downey’s Leverage aren’t joyful militarists whose idea of helping people invariably involves vans and walls. Because, unlike Leverage, that other show
was a guy’s show. It was male-driven. It was written by guys. It was directed by guys. It was acted by guys. It’s about what guys do. We talked the way guys talked. We were the boss. We were the God. We smoked when we wanted. We shot guns when we wanted. It was the last truly masculine show.
In the 1980s, heroism only came from the barrel of guns aimed by incompetent men at similarly scattershot adversaries—because for all the gunplay, no one was ever shot. When these world-historically poor shots grew tired of wasting ammunition, they would chase each other in vans until one of them found a wall in need of Kool-Aid, then someone would punch someone, everyone would laugh, and the day would somehow have been saved.
The Definite-Indefinite Article-Team was a male fantasy about a world in which simpleminded evil could be thwarted by brute force, the implication being that had the government allowed these clowns—who, the audience was to believe, were once ex-Special Forces—free rein in Vietnam, America would have won the war. How you win a war with soldiers who can barely hit the broad side of a barn with a van is beside the point: the 1980s needed manly men to manly deeds, and when they did, nothing made much sense, but everything worked out.
[Insert here a clunky summary of the arching plot. Describe how it's a show in which a former insurance investigator hires the talented specialists he formerly investigated to help those that corporations have rendered helpless. Maybe mention that the official website describes it as a show that features "elaborate scams designed to exact revenge against those who use power and wealth to victimize people." Then move on because exposition is necessary, but good God damn, is it ever boring.]
With Leverage, the issue isn’t whether nothing makes sense and everything works out, but whether the audience can make sense of how everything worked out. According to John Rogers:
Testing indicates—and I’m not kidding—that about 30% of our audience never understands the con at all.
Despite the fact that almost one-third of viewers have no clue what’s happening or why, Americans have voted with their eyes and elected Leverage the most popular show on basic cable. Which means that Americans love something they don’t understand, fully aware that they’re not understanding it. Unlike Twin Peaks, where the ignorance was as collective as its ratings were impressive, Leverage is a caper show, so the visceral narrative enjoyment should come from watching the plot hatch.
Let me literalize that:
Ideally, the audience should watch a hen have sex with a mutant rooster, then see the egg appear and, knowing what’s in the egg, watch with gleeful anticipation as the fox steals into the hen house and is confronted not with a delicious yellow chick, but a mutant-blue chick with the proportionate strength of an ant:
Only then should they treasure their anti-corporate catharsis.
Instead, almost one-third of Leverage‘s audience sees chickens having sex, is momentarily confused, but then marvels at the sudden appearance of an egg and squeals with glee when a just-born peep beats down the full-grown fox. For a caper show to be popular without being, for much of its audience, a caper show, means that its appeal is rooted in soils unwatered by Ocean’s 11 and ff.
So it is.
Bernie Madoff stole FIFTY BILLION DOLLARS. In a PONZI SCHEME. Which is the criminal equivalent of convincing people you are going to fly to the moon in a refrigerator box. The single, unpleasant truth is that most people, particularly criminals, are NOT complex. They are shallow, greedy sons of bitches to whom we attribute genius planning or complex motivations in order to preserve a false sense of order in our universe.
We desperately want to attribute otherwise. We want to believe that simpleminded evils are not, in fact, simpleminded, but that we’ve been duped by highly competent con artists whose methods are so arcane they can only be countered by other, more highly competent con artists. We enjoy the show despite the con because we want to believe such cons can’t be understood and really just want some vicarious vengeance.
Reaction to the show, then, is primal and political: we want to see for-profit military opportunists suffer for their trespasses against our soldiers, because war is more complicated now than it was thirty years ago; we want to see contractors who prey on over-extended homeowners in the wake of natural disasters be punished, because disaster relief is now politicized; by which I mean, we want to see ordinary criminals so offended by the non-crimes immoral profiteers lawfully commit that a third of us will devote thirteen hours to a show we don’t understand just to watch a mutant chicken gore a cowering pro-corporate fox.
[Tomorrow I'll post a more in-depth analysis of "The Bank Shot Job." I was going to do it tonight, but I think there's enough to chew on there already.]