21 February 2009

The Long Game

Here's the thing: I love capers.

Not the salty little pickled bud of the Capparis spinosa plant that you get when you order smoked salmon or caviar (tho I love those too). No, I mean stories of elaborately planned thefts, involving crews of thieves and grifters, pulling the wool over greedy marks' and plodding policemen's eyes and getting away clean.

I think it stems from my childhood adoration of a blink-and-you-missed-it 6 episode series from 1987 called Shell Game starring Margot Kidder and James Reid. Reid plays a grifter who has gone straight and is trying to live a normal life has his world thrown into disarray by his ex-partner (who is also his ex-wife) showing up to throw all his order into chaos, while trying to tempt him back into the life. Unlike Remington Steele, where Steele's life as a grifter only surfaced in those rare episodes where his mentor Daniel showed up, Shell Game presented the life as not nearly as glamourous (and quite a bit more frightening) but always in a frothy, 1930s screwball comedy kind of way. It also made me fall in love with female trickster types (which explains a lot about why I loved Amanda from Highlander) who don't need men to save them. In fact, they tend to come out on top using their own smarts, which made a deep impression on me as a 13 year old girl.

I have a collection of caper films I return to in times of stress, that go from London gangsters (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch being the obvious two) to slick remakes of 1960s classics like The Thomas Crown Affair remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo which adore madly. Tommy Crown is like Bruce Wayne without the childhood trauma, and Russo's Catherine Banning is clever, dangerous, brilliant, fierce, and possibly one of my all-time fave female leads in a genre picture. Their relationship is like a grown-up version of Batman and Catwoman. Plus I love Dennis Leary as her conscience and his foil. I have deep love of Ocean's 11, even though the sequels weren't nearly as satisfying, I could actually watch Danny, Rusty, and Linus scheme all day, every day. Linus lifting Danny's wallet is the best meet-cute ever.

So it should be no huge surprise to any of you that I've fallen hard for TNT's Leverage, which wraps up its first season this Tuesday.

Leverage is the story of Tim Hutton's former insurance investigator Nate Ford, who is hired to head a crew of degenerates to steal a McGuffin from a highly secure building. The crew includes Eliot (Christain Kane), who doesn't like guns but is adept at extricating himself or anyone else from any situation that involves causing pain, Hardison (Aldis Hodge) as the fixer who is a hacker extraordinaire and not to mention a hardcore Old Skool Doctor Who fan, and Parker (Beth Riesgraf), a cat burgler who lives for the adrenalin rush of leaping off a 30 storey high-rise on a zip line but when placed into any situation where she has to interact with a normal human being panics and shuts down. Nate, who takes the role of both boss and the roper, then brings in Sophie (Jekyll's Gina Bellman) to be the inside man. Back when Sophie was working full-time as a grifter and thief, Nate chased her across the world, and they share both a past and an attraction. Everything goes wrong, and that's where the fun starts. Because over the course of "The Nigerian Job" five people who have always worked alone realise they had fun working together. And one man realises that a bunch of bad guys can in fact harness and use their powers for good instead of evil. And become a family while doing so.

So basically, it's the A-Team, by way of Hustle.

And it's fabulous. I cannot stress how much, even with the wacky airing order (check out creator/producer John Roger's blog, Kung-Fu Monkey for the whys and wherefores and actual production order) every week is like a mini-movie and the character relationships are like crack to me. Parker, Hardison, and Eliot are seriously hardcore OT3 (that's "One True Threesome" for those of you not hip to the Livejournal fandom parlance) and Sophie and Nate have fantastic chemistry as the dysfunctional "parents" of the wacky kids. The characters are all fascinating, as are their relationships. Parker in particular I adore, and "The Juror #6 Job" made me make high-pitched squeaky sounds of glee only dogs could hear. Likewise, Hardison is clearly of my people, and "The Mile High Job" is a tour de force for geek joy. Hardison is, in fact, made of awesome. If airports had awesome-sniffing dogs, then he would have to take trains. That's how awesome he is. And I could go on and on, breaking down what I love about every single ep, but I trust you get the idea. Leverage has become my fave new series (now that The Middleman is currently hibernating in a high-tech vat pending DVD sales which will determine its fate).

I actually have been watching Leverage paired with Hustle for the last month, because like steak and red wine, or brie and apples, they compliment one another perfectly. I had actually given up on Hustle last series, when Adrian Lester chose not to return and Danny Blue (the ubiquitous Marc Warren) took over the crew. Maybe it was kicking off last series in California, far from Eddie's bar and the familiar sites of London, which made me tune out. Maybe it was just the fact that I could deal with Danny a lot better when Mickey Bricks was there to balance him out. Either way, I'd just thought "that was a great ride, but I think I'm ready to get off now." So I did.

But this year, Mickey Bricks is back, and while Danny and Stacie are gone, their slots in the crew have been filled by Emma and Sean, a brother-sister grifting team Albert first spotted (much the same way he brought Danny to Mickey, back in the day) and Mickey recuits. It's been fresh and fun, and while it hasn't been as break-the-fourth-wall wacky as earlier seasons, it has been frothy slick fun that I've consistently enjoyed for all of its 6 episode run this year.

I know in real life, grifters, con men, confidence scams and schemes hurt innocent people. But in fiction, generally the only marks who lose are the ones trying to get something for nothing. And so con men like Mickey Bricks, or crusaders like Nate Ford, can count on their greed to bring them down. What I love to watch is the game. The way the con is put together, the roles are assigned, and how quickly the inside man (or men) think on their feet. But even when you're not looking at the long con, I am fascinated by the process.

I remember after I had moved back to Chicago, in 1997 or so, being on an El train headed downtown on a sunny Saturday. The trains were all packed--either with people going shopping, or to a baseball game at Wrigley. And I was fascinated by a guy running a shell game. He had two shills with him, and what they would do was, at one stop, get on the car before him. Then he'd join them on the next stop. He had a newspaper balanced on his lap, and was using 3 plastic Coke caps for shells. And the shills would do what they were supposed to--bet $20 to try and fool the yuppies into believing they could double their money. And he'd walk up and down the car, trying his luck. When he got to me, I think I said "Do I look like a mark?" and his eyes just slid off me and he kept on going like I wasn't even there--unfazed. And at the next stop, he got off to join the shills in the next car.

I actually did report them to the station when I did get off. Not because I had actually seen any idiots get taken (and I genuinely do believe that if you are idiot enough to bet on a shell game, then you deserve to lose). But it was a matter of principle. They were clearly riding the same red line train all morning, back and forth from 95th to Howard, and they had been so obvious about it--everything from the shills being shills, to how badly he palmed the pea--that I figured, if they got caught, it was because they weren't clever enough not to.

In short: I want my thieves to be clever and moral and occasionally make out with each other. So far, fiction has totally provided for me.

I am thrilled that both Leverage and Hustle are coming back next year, because while I often joke that unless a series has time travel, robots, sword fights, or aliens, I'm noy that interested, the part of geeky me that collects pulp crime novels from the 1930s through the 1960s and grew up wanting James Reid to chuck it all and head off into the sunset with Margot Kidder adores them madly.

Give me the long con any day.

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