Since the tales of Robin Hood, average citizens have enjoyed seeing the rich conned out of their beloved money or assets. Let’s face it—it’s just plain fun to see someone who takes advantage of those in poor circumstances get their comeuppance.
Back in the olden days, my boyfriend and I had a standing date on Sunday night: he’d go to church with me, and then we’d go back to my house for snacks and to watch the latest episode of Mission: Impossible. I loved the suave, sophisticated characters outsmarting the bad guys, and he loved the gadgets and electronic devices used to outwit them.
These days, that boyfriend—now my husband of many years—and I enjoy watching TNT’s Leverage for the very same reasons. The gadgets are better, but the cons usually accomplish the same results: getting a bad guy to give back what he took.
When you look at these two shows side by side, you can see why we like them both. Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) was head of the elite Impossible Missions Force that went after nasty governments and despots, and Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton), a former insurance investigator, has a team of ne’er do wells who now use their better-than-average powers to rescue the downtrodden.
Mission: Impossible featured a group of secret government agents and had its trademark opening of listening to a taped message of the job with the ominous words, “Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it . . .” and then the tape mysteriously self-destructing. (I often wondered how many kids destroyed their parents’ tape recorders trying to duplicate that action.)
Nathan’s Ford’s Leverage team doesn’t get assignments; viewers usually see what has happened to the prospective clients that make the group want to take the job at the beginning of the show, and Nathan’s former criminals know all the tricks of a good con job since they’re all professionals.
Still, there are many similarities between the two shows in the teams and in the way they go about their business.
On Mission: Impossible, Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) was a top fashion model and an actress; her counterpart in Leverage is Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman), at best a B-movie actress, who is able to pull off a variety of clever disguises and look comfortable in any situation.
Barney Collier (Greg Morris) was the knowledgeable security and electronics expert on the IMF, while Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge) is a master hacker and electronics savant for Nate’s team.
Strongman Wiley Armitage (Peter Lupus) provided the IMF’s powerful physical force and lines up against Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), the ace martial artist who softens his physicality by being a gourmet in the kitchen.
The two teams come together with the final members: Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), a magician who is also a consummate makeup and escape artist and Parker (Beth Riesgraf), a modern-day Artful Dodger whose quirkiness is a delightful contrast to her precision as a thief.
I find both of these shows immensely entertaining, because every episode involves an elaborate plan that absolutely must go wrong so instincts can kick in and save the day.
Where the two shows take a fork in the road is with their jobs—the IMF’s assignments were usually related to a subtle, but obvious, Cold War plot and came from "the Secretary.” Their targets were frequently dictators or an enemy in an unnamed foreign government.
Nate’s team, on the other hand, recovers stolen items like patents or valuables or huge amounts of money that have been swindled or embezzled. And, of course, there are Nathan’s favorite targets: faceless insurance companies who have reduced needy people to undeserving recipients. Nate’s war with the insurance companies is the result of his son dying after being denied treatment by the insurance company that employed him.
For me, the pleasure of these two shows is seeing good triumph over evil and the amusement of seeing the rich, surly, bad people totally taken in by people pretending to be what they’re not. I don’t think any of these shows are acting as morality plays, but they do provide satisfying endings to what could be very sad stories. Recovering what is lost, taking back what was stolen, and making a bad situation turn out well for the underdog always plays well with audiences. It makes for entertaining television, too, and, as Tom Cruise has found, a great basis for a series of big-bang action thrillers.
Leverage just finished its fourth season, but you can probably catch rebroadcasts of the show on TNT and Mission: Impossible reruns are available on YouTube. Both are also available on DVD and other streaming services. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to check out both these great shows.
Leigh Neely is a former newspaper and magazine editor. She currently does freelance work, blogs at womenofmystery.net, and recently wrote the short story, “A Vampire in Brooklyn,” which appears in the anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She loves reading, writing, and watching mysteries and urban fantasy.