Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Leverage

(or "Churn 'n Burn")

First, an apology for the day's delay--here I skip blogging last Monday to set up a Monday Storytelling Engines entry, then I don't post it until Tuesday! What can I say, long weekends always screw me up.

Now, on to a discussion of "Leverage". For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it uses the basic structure of the "caper" movie (a team of experts in various fields of criminal activity assembles for a crime that would normally be impossible, and then pulls it off due to their brilliance and gets away with the goods.) But "Leverage" has a twist--the crooks are all wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and pull off their scams and capers against corporate crooks who use their power and money to ignore, flout, or occasionally change the law. The kind of people who should be in jail, but never will be.

This brilliantly taps into the zeitgeist of the post-Bush era, where it has become increasingly clear that Bush and his cronies used patriotism as a cover for some of the most egregious graft and corruption in the history of this country (and that's saying something.) Some episodes are even direct parallels; Castleman Security, the villains of "The Homecoming Job", are obviously meant to be Blackwater USA (parallels that became all the stronger after real-life Blackwater CEO Erik Prince became entangled in murder charges a few months after the episode aired.) There's a lot of general anger towards rich guys, big corporations, and the seemingly different code of justice for the wealthy and privileged in America, and that makes it all the more satisfying to root for the honest crooks.

So it's a strong concept for a series, especially now. But it does take a risk--apart from the five protagonists, they rarely use recurring characters at all. Likewise, there are very few ongoing sub-plots from episode to episode; each hour-long show tends to be one self-contained caper from beginning to end. They set up an entirely new crime with every episode, and pull it off by the end. This means they're churning through an enormous amount of storytelling material with each episode, with very few safety nets when they get stuck for an idea. This is, to say the least, a daunting prospect for a series that has to come up with a new plot every week (and one that hopes to have at least a 100-episode run, presumably. TV shows need a stronger storytelling engine than just about any other medium, simply due to the way that the profits come in on a series. If you last at least five seasons, you're going to be raking in dough. If not, you better hope for a strong DVD audience.)

So is "Leverage" doomed to run out of ideas by Season Three? Probably not, because while they take a big risk, they also have a strong advantage. They use real cons, heists, scams and capers as their inspiration (something showrunner John Rogers talks about from time to time on his excellent blog, Kung Fu Monkey.) And if there's anything you can count on in this world, it's that the human race never ceases trying to find new and inventive ways of cheating money out of one another. It's doubtful that "Leverage" will ever find a shortage of corrupt, greedy bastards to pastiche as their bad guys, and it's even more doubtful that they'll run out of clever, sneaky cons for the heroes to run on those bad guys. In short, they're relying on human nature to provide their stories for them, and as long as there are humans, they'll always have a ready supply of ideas.

But if the human race ever dies out, they'll probably be in trouble.


magidin said...

Great post, and it's great to see the Storytelling engines come back!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of storytelling engines, did you read the last issue of Planetary? They actually use the term "storytelling engine" at some point. I'm not sure if you precisely coined the term, but I thought it might still raise some interest with you.