Leverage, Amber, and Strategic Storytelling

This post is a repeat from the archive of my old Japanophilia-blog-turned-culture-blog Tetsujin.org. I recently revisited this post and decided to repost it here because the question of strategic versus tactical plotting continues to interest me, and has become an important consideration in planning my current writing project.

Since this post appeared in 2010 Leverage went on complete five seasons and reached a very satisfying conclusion. Throughout its run it continued to build upon its style and structure of strategic plotting with super-competent characters.


Last week Darling Wife and I watched the Season 2 finale of Leverage, TNT’s updated fusion of Robin Hood and Ocean’s Eleven. Timothy Hutton stars as Nate Ford, a former insurance investigator who leads an all-star team of criminals — a Hitter, a Hacker, a Grifter and a Thief — to steal back justice for those victimized by the rich, powerful and unethical.

This most recent season of Leverage had its rocky moments, but the two-part finale was brilliant. Written by series co-creator John Rogers and directed by his co-exec producer Dean Devlin, it showed both their talent and the care they have for the material.

The season finale also brought home for me one of the reasons I enjoy the structure of Leverage, why its stories settle into the mind so comfortably. I think it is because the plots operate on a purely strategic level.

The plot development in Leverage is all about the big picture, the master plan. That’s because the show has quietly but firmly established that each member of Ford’s outlaw band is the best in the world at his or her specialty. There is no doubt that when it comes to a fight Eliot the Hitter will win against anything less than an armor division. If something needs to be stolen or a building to be infiltrated, Parker the Thief will get it done. If the team needs to access a secret computer system, gather classified data or perform any other technological trickery, Hardison the Hacker will succeed. If they need to sell a bad guy on a false identity or a fake business deal, the mark will believe thanks to Sophie the Grifter (or in this season her temporary replacement Tara, played by Jeri Ryan filling in while Gina Bellman (Sophie) is on maternity leave. OK, so those two are co-best-in-the-world.)

There are some close calls, and on occasion it may look like someone else is getting the upper hand as Elliot takes a bad punch or Hardison gets out-hacked. But these setbacks always turn out to be fleeting, partial and/or part of the scam.

You might think that this would rob the show of its excitement. If the good guys will always win, where’s the drama? Where’s the suspense?

Well, that’s the catch: even though each member will always win his or her brand of challenge, that doesn’t mean that the team will always succeed in its mission.

In order to succeed, the team needs strategy. They need a master plan to ensure that they steal the right thing at the right time, that they craft just the right con or hack for the job, and that if there’s fighting to be done it happens exactly when and where they need it to.

This of course is the role of the Mastermind, Nate Ford. The pressure on Ford is to make sure each job unfolds the way it should. The show’s most suspenseful moments arise when Nate’s plans go off course, either because of some surprise or because of some distraction such as his ex wife or his alcoholism.

This allows Timothy Hutton to shine, even while his generosity as an actor allows the rest of the cast to do great work with their clever, quirky parts.

The structure reminds me a lot of the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game, a tabletop RPG based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. Unlike most table top games, Amber does not rely on dice to determine the outcome of a conflict. Instead characters are ranked on attributes such as strength and magical power, and in a fair fight the character with the higher rank in the relevant attribute will win. This attracts players who are more interested in role playing and story development than war-game tactics, and has lead to long continuing games with intricate plots and intriguing characters.

Similarly, for a series that often has a light tone, Leverage offers some great characters and great character development. Their skills may not be in question, but they all find ways to grow. One of the pleasures of the show is watching bad guys learn the joy of being good guys.

(Sadly the Amber Diceless RPG is out of print, but used copies are available.)