Sunday, June 26, 2011

Show You Should Be Watching: "Leverage"

If you've never seen "Leverage," the premise is fairly simple: a group of criminals team up to play Robin Hood. What happens after they team up is much more complicated, and a whole lot more fun.

The team is led by Nate Ford, an often surly sometimes-alcoholic who left the insurance agency he worked for after the death of his son. After teaming up with some of the people he used to chase as an insurance investigator - a con artist, a thief, a hitter and a hacker - and getting conned himself, he and the rest of the team decide to turn things around, and use their criminal powers for good.

The show plays out like Ocean's 11 meets Robin Hood - each episode involves a person or persons who have been wronged by someone evil, and the team uses their particular skill sets to bring that person justice.  It's a fun premise, and one that has seemingly infinite possibilities.

The real appeal of the show, however, lies in the relationships between the main cast of five. Over the first three seasons these hard people, used to working on their own, develop a quirky, dysfunctional family, with Nate as the grudgingly loving father and con-woman Sophie as the mother. Brilliant hacker Hardison, gruff badass Elliot and emotionally-stunted expert thief Parker make up the rest of the crew.

"Leverage" is really largely about this nontraditional family, but each week they manage to pull off increasingly complicated heists and cons, pulling down bad guy after bad guy and racking up an impressive list of enemies. Though the show is largely set in Boston, the team does often travel, and even their local cons are set in a variety of locations: museums, fashion shows, country music studios, and even horse ranches.

It would be easy to write "Leverage" off as a fluffy action show, but amidst the humor and the snarking there are occasional moments of depth, emotion and even romance. While Nate and Sophie have played the flirting game since day one, the relationship between Parker, who is often childish in her whims and emotions, and geeky but sweet Hardison, is one of the show's most endearing. Even if Parker can't quite bring herself to start a romance, they have one of the best relationships on the show.

Although to be fair, the snarking is pretty fun, too.

It's entirely possible that Parker is my favorite character (if you couldn't tell).

The other high point of the show is often the action scenes. Elliot is usually the star here - watching him beat up rooms full of large, armed men is always one of the most exciting parts of the episode.

The season 4 premiere of "Leverage" is tonight. If you're looking for an exciting, fun show to end your weekend right, this is a great choice. The good guys (usually) win, but they sure don't do it the easy way.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Guilty, Guilty Pleasure of "Make It or Break It"

"Make It or Break It" is a silly little show that embodies a lot of the worst qualities of ABC Family. It's sappy, often poorly acted and poorly written, and annoyingly preachy. It's also a show about elite, Olympic-contender gymnasts who can apparently only do basic skills.

So why do I keep watching it? There is a spark of something compelling in this story of elite gymnasts striving for Olympic gold at the cost of everything else. It can be a lot of fun. And, when they're not busy mooning over boys (it is a teen show on ABC Family, after all), there's even a hint of female empowerment behind these badass girl athletes.

Two of the best things about MIOBI are Olympic hopeful Payson and her coach Sasha. Payson is the golden girl right from the start, mature and driven, but a back injury at nationals sidelines her early. Her comeback story, while more than a bit unbelievable, did make for some good TV, and she is a character for whom you want to root. It helps that the actress who plays her, Ayla Kell, is one of the best on the show. And her relationship with her coach is just as intense and interesting - he believes in her fully and she trusts him implicitly, and as a viewer it's easy to want to see them make it all the way to the Olympics.

They aren't the only good thing about the show. National champ Kaylie can also be pretty interesting, and her battle with an eating disorder managed to pull a few great moments into the show. Some of the gymnastics parents offer great insight into all the sacrifices they've had to make to get their kids to this level of competitive athletics. And Emily, the poor girl trying to make it big, gives the viewer an underdog to root for - although sometimes she veers into Bella Swan-esque "Poor me, why do all the boys love me?" territory. Emily would have been better served as a character by being less obsessed with her sometimes boyfriend, a trait that eventually led to her pregnancy and the end of her gymnastics career on the show. That silly plot (fueled by the actress' real life pregnancy) was explained by the fact that because she was an athlete and had only ever had one period, Emily apparently did not think she needed birth control. Emily (herself the result of a teen pregnancy) has also apparently never heard of an STD.

What makes this a seriously GUILTY pleasure for me is the over-the-top, ridiculous writing and often hammy acting. But even that wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for two of the worst characters on TV, Lauren and Summer. If they could just get rid of these two horrific women, or rewrite them to have more than one layer, this might even occasionally be a good show.

The main problem with Lauren is that she is a sociopath, but the writers refuse to admit it. In the very first episode, she sets up a vault to purposefully injure another gymnast. She sleeps with her best friend's boyfriend, multiple times. She almost ruins her coach's career, because he's dating her dad's ex and she wants them to get back together. She lies constantly. And yet the other girls at the Rock continue to be her friends, she continues to win, and there are no consequences for her actions, ever. I love a good villain as much as the next TV addict, but Lauren is just ridiculous.

Summer is even worse, primarily because she is supposed to be a moral Christian character, but she is constantly being a judgmental hypocrite. All she ever does is slam everyone else's beliefs as being wrong - abstinence is the only choice ever! Sex before marriage is wrong, even though I really want to have sex with the hot coach! I'll lie for Lauren because she says she'll stop sleeping around, even thought lying is wrong and I'm going to judge anyone else who lies! Her "relationship" with Sasha lacked chemistry and almost ruined his awesome character, and there is no logical reason for her to be on the show. And as much as I loved DJ on "Full House," Candace Cameron Bure is horrible as Summer. Basically, she is the worst.

There's no word yet on if MIOBI is getting another season, but even with all these reasons to hate it, I can't help enjoying it and hoping it does. I want to see Payson and Kaylie make it to the Olympics. Maybe even Lauren, if they can make her less hateful. I would even accept a totally ludicrous storyline about Emily coming back post-pregnancy and somehow talking her way back on the National Team if it would mean getting to see this tightknit group of athletes make it to the big time. Winning Worlds was pretty satisfying. But winning the Olympics? That would bring this feel-good show to the ultimate level of happy fluff, and sometimes that's all I need.