Boy Meets Reel: Chuck, Leverage, and Winning Formulas

I've spent the last couple of weeks talking about how I overthink television. Let's turn that around, and talk about some shows I enjoy because they let me turn my brain off - and still feel smart about them later.

Chuck, for its first couple of seasons, provided me with a whole lot of amusement without making me feel dumber. It stuck to its formula for a while, using an even split of semi-serious spy work, hijinks by those wacky folks at the Buy More, and the hot-cold tale of Chuck's love life to bring its comic world to life. Even though I knew it was a formula, it never got old because of its sheer variety. Every week, I sat down knowing I was going to be entertained on all fronts, from comedy to action to just enough drama to avoid getting stale. So what if it was basically the same from week to week? It was fun, and a shining example of how a good formula can carry you through at least two or three seasons.

The ultimate expression of the fun formula is one of my favorite little shows on cable: Leverage. This weekly heist flick adheres so closely to its conventions that the characters comment on it regularly. The catch phrases from Timothy Hutton are often followed by snide (or bewildered) remarks. The obligatory fight scene starring Christian Kane is regularly accompanied by a complaint that "I just hit things!"

But here's the secret of what keeps Leverage fun: no matter how many times you see riffs on the same story play itself out, you stay engaged because Leverage makes you feel smart while you're watching it. It's a different heist every episode, in the style of Ocean's Eleven, and the genius of the show is that you feel like you're in on the secret. Whenever one of the characters pulls off an amazing feat of sleight of hand or trickery, it isn't long before the camera shows you what happened, along with a figurative wink and a smile.

It's very different from a mystery show, where the big reveal is supposed to impress you with how smart the character are; Leverage's approach lets you feel better than the villain of the week because he got duped by a trick that seems so simple when you see it from the perspective of our heroic thieves. It's a subtle bit of genius from a show that's all about living out working class fantasies, where we get to see the little guy triumph over the greedy ambitions of corrupt politicians, corporate bigwigs, and crime bosses.

So when Leverage starts back up this summer, do yourself a favor and watch it over on TNT. It isn't the most groundbreaking program on television, but it's one of those shows that works its formula so well that you find yourself coming back for more.


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Apr 23, 2010 9:06PM EDT

You've got a great insight on Leverage. It's a little different, and yet somehow really similar to mine, which is cool. And - I actually don't know if they're still posted - but you should check out some of the behind-the-scenes material on TNT's website about the sleight of hand and other tricks of con artists. It's some really nifty stuff.

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