Vengeance Unlimited, Burn Notice & Leverage

As I’m sure both of my readers are tired of hearing about, I find the tension between self-responsibility (what you do for you) and societal-responsibility (what you do for others) a source of rich drama that I don’t think modern culture is tapping into to examine. As a member of society, you have a responsibility not only to not steal from your neighbor, but to prevent it; even to hunt down the thief that does.  Of course, very few of us have the time to fulfill this responsibility, so we’ve generally agreed to all chip in a bit of money to hire someone to catch the thief for us and to provide whatever means he/she requires to do so.

However, it doesn’t work as ideally as we’d like.  After all, although there are much disagreement on the cause, it is universally agreed that this world is far from perfect.  Sometimes innocent men are punished and guilty men go free.  On some instinctual level, we are generally horrified at these perversions of justice and demand something be done.  Then as humans often do, we retreat into our art and imaginations to escape to worlds where justice will not be cheated…

Vengeance Unlimited was short-lived, 13 episode series that aired in 1998.  Unfortunately, ABC decided to air it opposite of Friends at the height of the latter show’s popularity.  Still, I had nothing better to do on Thursdays and I hated that NBC show so not only did I watch VU, but I fell in love with it.  Indeed, it’s a bit of a shame the show wasn’t released around the time the USA cable channel went on its “Characters Welcome” motif as Mr Chapel is as excellent a character as Monk or House.  But then, everything the show could have been is a blog post in and of itself.

The show centers around Mr Chapel as played by the awesome Michael Madsen (yeah, I know he only plays one role, but it’s such an entertaining role) who goes around correcting “wrongs” that have escaped the justice system.  The first episode sees him gain a friend (named K.C.) that stays with him through the show’s run and gives the audience an excellent identification character.  This show really comes off as an even more gritty and realistic Batman than Nolan’s movies.  K.C. & Mr Chapel have one of my most favorite mentor/protege (or hero/sidekick if you will) relationships of all time and demonstrates how well platonic love can be written.

Everyone’s going to point out that it has a lot in common with an ’85 show called the Equalizer.  While I haven’t seen much of it, I have to admit that VU appeals to me more with a bit of a darker tone and a bit of a realistic take (we don’t get a scene where Mr Chapel explains things to the “target” – or anyone else) so I’ll be using VU as the standard for the next two reviews here.  Things the show did very, very well:

  • Memorable, yet realistic characters – Well… sort of realistic.  Through the show’s short run, they seem to take a lot of delight in having new and different reactions to Mr Chapel.  Also, a lot of his plans don’t rely on people being extremely stupid or acting inhuman or out of character.  Sometimes people acting smart or in character can cause big problems for Mr Chapel.  Though some side characters (especially the “clients”) are a bit forgettable, the villains and “helpers” never are.
  • Likable leads – They did what they could for network television, but it’s easy to see how this show might have gone had it been on cable.  Michael Madsen plays a man who doesn’t drink, smoke or swear much (and his job gives him every reason to) as well as avoid a plethora of other “small” vices.  Yet some of his plans and moves can be downright sadistic (though he’ll never directly kill, rape, etc anyone).  The best way to sum up his character is “dark paladin” and his lovable sidekick K.C. calling him out on some of these moves only endears us more to them.
  • Realistic or limited hacking/tech – As a geek who works in computers, this just gets more annoying the longer I live.  (oh I’ll go off on this soon)  Most tech in the show is pretty realistic for the time and any “hacking” done is usually kept off screen and low-key simple enough to be entirely believable.
  • Apolitical – All kinds of targets were acceptable to Mr Chapel’s smiting.  From rich assholes to corrupt government officials to even a small time, solo scammer.  Didn’t matter if you were big or small, left or right, if you victimized the innocent and escaped justice, Mr Chapel would find you.
  • Open invitation – Not always, but very often Mr Chapel will contact the target and give them a chance to do the right thing before the “fun” begins.  Sometimes not just the target, but other “bad” people he runs into are given chances to do what they should.  People don’t always take him up on the offer in which case… they suffer.  This not only adds extra dimension to Mr Chapel and makes him more lovable, but it helps confirm for the viewers that these “targets” really deserve what’s coming to them.

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So how do two shows I’ve been catching up with recently measure up to my all time favorite?

Leverage is a team “revenge” show involving a five man band and when I heard about it, I was kind of looking forward to it.  It’s currently on it’s fourth season and I’ve watched two thanks to netflix.

If VU was a modern day update of the Equalizer, then Leverage is a modern day update for the A-team: it doesn’t seek to suspend your disbelief as much as OBLITERATE IT IN A MASSIVE FIREBALL OF AWESOMENESS.  And both have about as much in common with “realism”.  And boy am I bipolar when it comes to this show…  The main “hacker” of the show (played by the man who killed Sam) may as well just be a wizard as he can do whatever he needs to as long as his wand staff computers are available.  I just about threw something across the room when it showed one episode where he had a remote control golf ball.  I did not make that up.  Then more than once, the scam the main characters are pulling off require either near superspeed (such as one episode where two mains switched clothes with 2 people – in way too little time).

But on the other hand, two of the stars are Timothy Hutton and Christian Kane (who rock) and guest stars include Jeri Ryan, Wil Wheaton, and Mark Shepard (and so many more).  Early episodes were definitely left-wing leaning (going after their particular “acceptable targets”) but this is a case where getting extended contracts helped as you can’t keep an ongoing show like this running with just targets of one side.  Through season two they opened up the targets they were after.  Also, two more things I hold against it is that the crew never gives the target a chance at redemption (no matter how unlikely) and sometimes they’re almost too criminal.

Yes I know on all these vigilante shows technically every protagonist is a criminal, but in the case of Mr Chapel and many others, while they might violate the letter of the law, there is a definite air of them maintaining the spirit of the law.  If anyone’s lives are disrupted in any manner through his work (not just the client), Mr Chapel does his part to make amends or apologize.  More than once during Leverage I find myself wondering about some of the side people that the crew interacts with.  A lot of these people are innocent and yet will have their lives majorly disrupted; yet we never see the gang consider or try to make right what they did.  Although if we ever see a later episode where the team has to clean up after itself… that would change a lot of my opinions.  All in all… it’s not a bad show, I would definitely watch it if there was nothing else on TV, but I’m not sure I’m going to put in that much more effort to watch it.

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Now Burn Notice is a great show, and I admit one thing that attracted me to it was it’s very clever episode structure.  Like many hour long shows (though not often with VU), there will be two plots running through: an A plot and B plot (Star Trek is especially notorious for this).  Burn Notice plays with this in a very ingenious way.  The first episode or two of a season will tie into a larger, over arching plot thread running through the series.  Then each episode after that will deal with the team helping a Client of the Week (CotW) as the A plot, with the over arching thread being dealt with in the “B plot” (then the final episode[s] of the season will also deal with the greater story arc).  This not only makes the show extremely accessible to new viewers but also rewards long time and repeat viewers.  That this show has achieved such a near perfect narrative balance between the two audience goals of a serial narrative is just so brilliant, I can’t help but wonder why nobody’s done it before (but then, maybe someone has and I haven’t seen it yet).  There’s not telling how much applying this format to ST:Voyager or Enterprise might have greatly improved those series.

In addition, the show fires perfectly at just about every other target.  The main characters (one played by BRUCE CAMPBELL) are extremely likable.  The computer stuff is kept generally low-key and unoffensive (though sometimes they’ll slip up).  The fighting is some of the most realistic (while being entertaining) that you can find on TV and generally everyone acts intelligent and realistic.  Michael Weston sometimes gives the targets a chance to repent, though often you can understand why he wouldn’t (since it might make things worse) and often will go to great lengths to avoid making things worse for any innocent civilian that might get involved.  If I had any complaints it’s that sometimes things work a little too well (just once I’d like to see Fiona try to seduce a target – and fail because he’s gay/not into her type/whatever) and that I wonder when the character have any time to sleep or take a bathroom break but all in all – highly recommend this to audiences that like to see bad guys get what’s coming to them.  This show is a worthy successor to Vengeance Unlimited (indeed, I would geek out if Michael Madsen ever played Weston’s spy-ops trainer).

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