When the System Breaks Down

English: Logo from the television program Leve...

Logo for the TV Program “Leverage”

Today I started watching the first season of the show “Leverage”. Those of you who are hard core fans might reproach me since the show is just beginning its fifth season. So what was it that got me watching after four seasons have gone by? Actually, it was an article in The Oregonian (our newspaper, for those who live elsewhere. The article –an interview with the lead actor Timothy Hutton (who plays Nathan Ford in the show) – talks about shooting on location in Portland and what that has meant for the cast and crew. I’d always meant to watch Leverage, but just had never gotten around to it. And, of course, it certainly wasn’t anywhere near the top of my list of priorities. But today I did get around to watching a couple episodes. And although some of storyline is awfully far-fetched, I still enjoyed it.

The premise is pretty simple. An ex-insurance investigator Nathan Ford (Hutton) hooks up with a group of criminals – a grifter, theif, strongman, and hacker – in a chance encounter that leads them to forming a team. The team is led by Ford and they take on clients who have no legal recourse to solve their problems. People who say, owe money to the mob, or whose son was poisoned by a fertilizer that the company knew was toxic….essentially men and women who need help but have no place else to turn. Ford and his group stage daring and illegal operations to obtain leverage (hence the show’s title) for their clients so that they can manipulate giant corporations and people in positions of power to do the right thing.

Portrait of U.S. actor Timothy Hutton at the 2...

Portrait of U.S. actor Timothy Hutton at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In other words, this is somewhat like a modern take on the Robin Hood “steal from the rich and give to the poor”, where the outlaws are the good guys and the establishment is the enemy. In Leverage, we see the corporate, industrial and political face of America as corrupt and insensitive to the plight of the common man. The Leverage team steps in to help right some of those wrongs, and does so in a criminally devious yet ultimately heartwarming way.

So yeah, you can see that I liked the show. The acting isn’t always A+, and as I said before, some of the things they do (especially the overly nimble and flexible thief and the almost omnipotent hacker) are a little unrealistic, but I find myself suspending my disbelief and rooting for the crew to take down their newest opponent, whether they be an adoption scammer in Belgrade or a Mobster in New Jersey.

I was prompted to write about Leverage because of a few of its more thought provoking character details.

First up, Nathan Ford. He’s the leader of the team, and used to investigate claims for a giant insurance company and get paid well for it. Until his son became desperately ill, and the insurance company refused to pay his claim because his son’s treatment was “experimental”. Ford loses his son and his wife leaves him and he tries to lose his sorrows in the bottle. Fortunately for him, he gets pulled into the Leverage team just as he looks like he is going to completely fall apart. Although this new leadership role helps him feel like he is doing something good with his life, and perhaps even avenging his son’s death, he still is crippled by the painful emotional distress caused by the loss of his family, and continues to drink excessively. Somewhere around the 4th or 5th episode he shows  up to a meeting with his criminal colleagues while he is still drunk from the previous night. In short, he has some demons and they are not going quietly into the night. It seems that they may haunt him through much of the first season, perhaps becoming a storyline in and of themselves.

Another character who intrigues me is Parker, the thief (Beth Riesgraf). She has odd mannerisms, an undue fascination with money for money’s sake, and we know she grew up in the foster system and had some very, very dysfunctional guardians. At one point when the team are involved in freeing a bunch of Serbian orphans, Parker freezes up and begins to have flashbacks. Her past, just like Ford’s is continuing to haunt her.

And then there is the lovely grifter, Sophie Devereaux played by Gina Bellman. I know her as the somewhat mental, desperate woman from the BBC sitcom “Coupling”. But she shines in Leverage as a beautiful confidence artist who wants to be an actress and who has also dabbled in art theft and forgery. You can compare her to a female version of Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) in USA’s “White Collar”. Devereaux and Ford have a complicated romantic history. Thus far, I only know that their current relationship is fraught with sexual tension and an almost motherly concern on Devereaux’s part for Ford’s well being. I also know that they have known each other ten years and that although Ford did not cheat on his wife with Devereaux, they have had romance in the past in some form. This spark between them adds another interesting side plot, as well as providing someone who can appeal to Nathan Ford on a deeper level, someone who he is not able to write of as being “just another thief”. Sophie Devereaux makes it impossible for Nathan to ignore her, and right now that seems to be a good thing for the show.

Alright, so you’ve had a review of the show. Now, here’s what all this made me think about:

We are constantly working within systems. When you type on a computer and use software you are working within your computer’s systems. When you drive your car, you are following the system of regulations set out by the DMV. When you interact with your friends, family, coworkers and even your enemies, you are working within a complex system of stated and implied rules that govern our every social interchange. Most of all, we live in a world that is being structured by a vast political machine that, at the moment, seems to be bought and paid for by giant business interests that dictate government policy. Watching Leverage reminded me that we have a choice.

We can choose to work within the confines of a given system. But what happens when that system begins to break down? The question the show Leverage makes me ask is this: when the system within which you are trying to work becomes hopelessly corrupt and begins to destroy the very people who are working to uphold it, do you continue to try and work through that system and change it from within, or do you step outside of the system and make your own rules?

Of course, either decision has its moral quandaries and its pros and cons. Trying to change a system from within sets you up to be stonewalled and paid-off and utterly mired in bureaucracy. But trying to change a system from the outside sets you up to go to jail, be killed, or just be written off as a “bad guy”.

One thing that I have become increasingly aware of is the amount of control that giant agribusinesses have over our economy and our government. Their control is so pervasive that they have been able to popularize their own ideas of health and nutrition that are leading our country into higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, obesity, and food addiction. They have told everyone for years that cow’s milk and dairy are good for you, and so is wheat. But research has been telling us the opposite since the 1970’s. And that research has been summarily suppressed by the agribusiness interests so that hardly anyone even has the information they need to make healthy choices about what they put into their bodies.

So, my thought is this: if I know that this system is corrupt, do I continue to play into their hands by eating the way they want me to eat and by purchasing the products they want me to purchase? Do I continue to consume, at an alarming rate, things that have been proven to be bad for my body, or do I make the choice, however tough it might be, to eat only things that I know are good for me?

Our lives are systems within systems, and layers upon layers of restrictions, guidelines, laws, regulations and unspoken social contracts that dictate our every move. Sometimes it feels like we have no choice but to go along with what the prevailing attitude might be.

What I like best about Leverage is that the characters, despite their checkered pasts, have chosen to step out of a corrupt system and have chosen not to play by their rules any longer. Well, I am choosing the same thing in a way. I have made the choice that the modern agribusiness will not tell me what food I eat. No longer will I listen to what the “Standard American Diet” says I need. Instead I will listen to my body and listen to proven scientific and medical research. I will trust my own judgment and the judgment of doctors who have my holistic well being in mind. And I will trust people close to me who have made the same decision I have – not to put ourselves and our wellness in the hands of corporations who have consistently abused our trust for decades.

The Leverage crew may be criminals, but they are kind hearted and helpful ones. After all, Jesus Christ was branded a criminal by the Jewish priests and the Roman government, the two most powerful systems in Israel/Palestine during his time. And Jesus taught only love, compassion, and kindness toward one’s fellow man. But he threatened to shake up the status quo, and those in power branded him a traitor, heretic and revolutionary, and had him killed for it.

So perhaps, sometimes being an outlaw is the right thing to do.

I’m interested to hear what you think about the systems that we have put in place to run our lives. Do you think they are effective? Are there some that frustrate you or even have caused you direct harm? Most of all, do you feel helpless or do you believe you have a choice?

Thanks for reading, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic.

And, of course, I recommend you watch an episode or two of Leverage next time you decide to relax in front of the TV. Not only is it thought provoking, it’s a fun and energetic show as well with comedy and drama mixed with action. Fun stuff.

Goodnight,

-Nathan

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