6 Storytelling Lessons from the Pilot Episode of LEVERAGE
IMDB tv recently announced that they were rebooting the TV show Leverage. with most of the original cast, and I’m really excited about it. Not only is it a fun show with a great cast of characters, featuring found family and con artists and thieves (so most of my personal favorite things), but it also has a lot of really valuable writing lessons.
If you like con stories or the Ocean's movies, I definitely recommend watching the full series. But even if that isn’t your thing, you might want to consider watching just the pilot episode, titled "The Nigerian Job," because it is in my personal opinion one of the best pilot episodes of TV I’ve ever seen. It does everything a pilot episode (or a first book in a series) should do, and moreover, it does these things well and with style.
1.) "The Nigerian Job" clearly establishes the type of story you are getting right off the bat, giving you both the action and the heart. The story opens with Victor (later revealed to be the villain) approaching Nate (the mastermind ex-insurance investigator) for a heist job. That conversation continues, intercut with scenes from the set-up for the heist itself, and it clearly establishes several different elements. Not only that this show is going to feature fast paced, tricky heists/cons, but also that there is a lot of heart here. Nate talks about not being a thief, which is a major theme for that character, and also says the line “They always work alone,” which sets up the heart of the whole series, this solid through-line of skilled individuals learning how they can be stronger as a team. And I always love a good “found family” story!
2.) The episode also introduces several characters very quickly. Not only does it literally spell out their names and jobs on the screen for you as they are introduced—“Parker. Thief.”—but by starting with the heist, the episode also gives us a chance to see each character's particular skills in action. More than that, the show also takes the time to set up the weaknesses as well. Nate struggles with alcoholism through much of the show, and that’s clearly set up here, both in the opening scene of him drinking alone in a bar and the moment soon afterward where we see all the empty alcohol bottles on his nightstand.
3.) Leverage also does a great job of providing enough context for the audience without bogging things down with too much backstory. I really love the use of flashbacks in this show. These moments really are just short flashes or scenes, focused on key moments, that really illustrate some aspect of who the character is, or what the relationships are like. They also use this same technique later in the episode to reveal the small details of the con that the audience needs to bring the whole story together. The short length of these moments keeps the story moving, but the tight focus on exactly the right moment, gives the audience everything they need.
4.) Another thing that I think this episode does really well is set the stakes for the characters and keep it personal. “What’s in it for you?” “Payback, and if it goes right, a lot of money.” Those are some powerful motivating stakes, especially for these types of characters. And even for our “white knight” Nate, from the opening conversation, Victor offers Nate a chance at a very personal revenge against his previous employers, and then later on, when Victor betrays the team, that becomes even more of a personal motive to drive the plot forward. “What’s in it for you?” “He used my son.”
5.) "The Nigerian Job" also manages to tell a full story in just this single episode, while still leaving lots of hooks for future episodes and plots with these characters. This is a show that really understands the value of coming full circle. One particular example that springs to mind is the moment at the end of the original heist, where our heroes are standing in a circle, and they say say goodbye to one another, “One time only. I’ve already forgot your names,” and then the camera rises and we see them all walking away in different directions. Later, after the revenge con is finished, the characters all meet up and stand in a similar circle, and that dialogue is repeated, as is the shot of them all walking away. Full circle. Yet this time, the characters have grown and changed, and they immediately circle back around and come back together as a group, eager to continue to work together. That trick of coming back to the same place, but then allowing the characters to show how they have changed and grown over the course of the story is very powerful!
6.) And finally, the pilot episode actually introduces the series. This sounds like something that should be obvious, yet, there are so many series out there where the advice from fans is to skip the first few episodes, stating that “it gets better later.” And, as an editor, I find that the same thing often happens with books, where the author will plan out a whole series filled with action and adventure and cool magic and drama, that simply isn’t there in the first book. But with Leverage, you can watch just this one episode and be able to make a pretty solid decision about the show as a whole. If you like the pilot episode, you’ll probably like the show—go forward, enjoy the five seasons we have and join me in looking forward to reboot!
What shows have you been binge watching lately? Anything coming up soon that you are excited about?