Leveraging Mission: Impossible

Peter Graves as Jim Phelps
Peter Graves as Jim Phelps
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.

Timothy Hutton as Nathan Ford
Timothy Hutton as Nathan Ford
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.

The Impossible Missions Force
The Impossible Missions Force
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.


  1. Laura K. Curtis

    I was such a huge fan of MI! I loved the show, but really, I loved Peter Graves and his blue, blue eyes. *sigh*

  2. Deborah Lacy

    I just saw the third Mission Impossible movie, and I still prefer Peter Graves to Tom Cruise (for those interested Ghost Protocol is better than MI: III and MI:II but not as good as MI: I) I haven’t been able to get into Leverage. I’ve tried because of Timothy Hutton but I haven’t succeeded.

  3. Clare 2e

    I loved the tv show M:I, though as a kid, I didn’t get all the plot and subtext. But I always enjoyed the music, which was used to such advantage, plus the inevitably self-destructing tapes. I looked forward to that every time. I keep hearing good things about Leverage, so I need to try some more episodes.

  4. Leigh

    I agree about Peter Graves, Laura. He definitely had the look of a secret agent and those steely blue eyes made him more believable. I also think he’s more acceptable as Jim than Cruise. We’ve always waited until the movies came to cable to watch them .

    The music of the original always set the scene well, I thought, and heightened the airmof mystery.

  5. Terrie Farley Moran

    MI–loved the tv show but I ignored the movies when Tom Cruise got the movie role. I was late finding Leverage but I do enjoy the show. I think the entire cast is perfectly suited to their roles and they interact wonderfully. Even during the most frustrating con they seem to be having fun.

  6. Mary Saputo

    As many times as I’ve seen Leverage, I no longer watch it. I think I was watching it, too, because of Tim Hutton but even his cute face isn’t enough to make me watch it again. It’s just too preposterous for me.

  7. Leigh

    I can understand why you feel that way, Terrie. The late Greg Morris got up and walked out after only a few minutes of the first movie. He said it was ridiculous.

    Sorry to hear you don’t like Leverage, Bitsy, but it does skirt toward the improbable at time.

  8. Tatiana deCarillion

    But, as with most action films, you have to suspend disbelief while watching. I don’t think real life heists/scams/whatever are nearly as interesting as the ones we view in films and on tv–after all, real life has a smaller budget 😛

    Besides that, Leverage is about the characters as much as it is about the plots, and that is what sells the show, in our house. This last episode where we had visits from Will Wheaton and Richard Chamberlain was awesomely funny!

    I find the plethora of pseudo-reality shows a lot more preposterous–and there’s no suspending disbelief for me, when it comes to them.

  9. Leigh Neely

    I so agree about the suspension of disbelief, especially with programs like this. For me, that’s part of the fun. I can watch people do what I know I can never do myself.

    I also agree about the characters on Leverage. I find their stories intriguing and truly want to know more about them. I loved the last episode. I hope Richard Chamberlain becomes a recurring character. I have harbored a secret love for him since his Dr. Kildare days.

    And finally, reality shows do not play in this household unless they’re related to cooking or science. I just don’t care for them.

  10. Tatiana deCarillion

    I should mention, too, that I LOVE the old MI series. It’s not on our channels in reruns, anymore, so I’ve been watching the season prices on Amazon, and picked up the first two, so far, for less than $13 each.

    As to the reality garbage, my husband has been watching Survivor since year one; I haven’t ever watched it nor any other show of that ilk. UGH!

  11. Cathi Stoler

    Loved MI and enjoy Leverage, as well. It is nice to see those bad folk getting exactly what they deserve.

  12. Clay

    I too loved the MI tv show as a kid and now… I have to chuckle when I read above; comments like “Graves was better than Cruise…” You must remember that in the very first MI movie… John Voight played Jim Phelps and the movie made the unforgivable mistake of trying to get the audience to believe that our man Jim Phelps would ever betray his team over money.. I have to say also Leverage is quite similar to the old MI tv show and I was in love with Barbara Bain for years… but Gina Bellman is truly beautiful and talented as well..

  13. Leigh

    I was furious about that, Clay. Jim would NEVER do that.

  14. chicago cell phone repair

    The show isn’t that bad, people really are coming down hard on this series. Try to take it with an open mind, and it’s decent.

  15. Leigh

    An open mind always helps, but many of us have character loyalty.

  16. Craig D.

    After I ran out of Mission: Impossible episodes to watch (I spent $150 [!!] on the big box set that has all nine seasons, and blew through it pretty quickly), I started looking around for similar shows to sate my desire for more. Very few spy shows fit the bill, since M:I is more of a con show than a spy show, albeit with spy and espionage elements. I eventually discovered Leverage when I found a review in which the critic stated that it was more faithful to the M:I show than the M:I films. I bought all five seasons and quickly discovered that this person was correct. The set-up is a bit different, and there’s far more humor and character development, but Leverage captures the essence of the M:I show far better than any of the films.

    I also noticed that Nate, Eliot, and Hardison are essentially Jim, Willy, and Barney, although Sophie and Parker don’t fit as easily into the Rollin and Cinnamon roles. Sophie has Rollin’s acting ability, though both Sophie and Parker have his pick-pocketing skills. And since this is the 21st century and objectifying women isn’t PC, it’s more often than not Eliot who’s given Cinnamon’s role as the sexy seducer, usually of some geeky and lonely girl with a boring desk job.

    As for the missions that the groups take on, Leverage has more in common with the later seasons of M:I than the early ones. As the 60s gave way to the 70s, the Cold War spy game became old hat, and the IMF started going after domestic criminals rather than foreign dictators. Leverage just updates this for today’s world by making the villains less Don Corleone and more Bernie Madoff.

    I’m still more of a M:I fan than a Leverage fan, but there’s no denying that the better episodes of the latter far exceed the lesser episodes of the former. They both have their hits and their misses, but I’ve enjoyed them both immensely. Two very good riffs on the same basic concept. It’s a shame that neither is cranking out new episodes, but the Tom Cruise films have been getting gradually closer to what these shows are all about (teamwork and cons rather than simply running and explosions), so I guess there’s hope for the future.

  17. Leigh Neely

    I agree, Craig. While I enjoyed Leverage, I did think MI had a more sophisticated, finished air about it. Unfortunately, there’s nothing close to either of them on now.

  18. Craig D.

    That’s true, sadly, but I’ve found some older stuff that’s scratched the itch to a degree: movies like The Sting, Topkapi, Rififi, Ocean’s Eleven, and TV shows like The Rockford Files and Hustle, have been pretty satisfying for me, even if they’re not quite exactly the same thing as M:I. The Sting was partially based on a book called The Big Con, which the M:I producers admitted to using for inspiration; they also admitted to ripping elements from Topkapi.

    By the way, both M:I and Leverage have tie-ins available for obsessive fans like me. Leverage just recently got three novels, and M:I had half a dozen back in the 60s (and some comic books, too) that are still easy to find on eBay. I’ve found them to be satisfying enough continuations, but I do wish there were more. If we can’t get a new M:I TV series, it would at least be nice if it could be kept alive via a novel series. They could even set them in the 60s with the original cast if they wanted to, and getting them written and published would be a relative cakewalk compared to getting a new show up and running.

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