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Leverage - Beth Riesgraf, Aldis Hodge, Christian Kane, Gina Bell
Leverage - Parker (Beth Riesgraf), Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), Sophie Devereaux(Gina Bellman) and Nathan Ford (Timoth Hutton) © 2010 Turner Network

Their leader is behind bars. A major nemesis now working for Interpol. And a beautiful stranger trying to call the shots. All told, things looked pretty bleak for Leverage’s gang of thieves and con artists at the start of season three. But as viewers soon discovered, the group might have been down but they certainly weren’t out.

Leverage stars Timothy Hutton as an ex-insurance investigator who puts together a team of ex-criminals to settle scores where the rich and powerful have used their influence to victimize others. Co-creator/executive producer Chris Downey recently sat down to discuss his plans for the popular heist series…

How has the series evolved from season one?

Leverage 2.09 - Jeri Ryan
Episode 2.09 The Runway Job – Eliot Spencer (Jeri Ryan) © 2010 Turner Network

I honestly feel like we’re doing the show that we set out to do. One of the things I always found in television is you need to come out of the gate knowing what show you’re doing. Shows that I’ve always felt have failed are the ones where you say, ‘Wow, it’s a great pilot!’ but you watch episodes two, three and four and you can see the writers still trying to figure out what the show is. We really made a conscious decision that we were going to do a fun heist and con show; these are the elements we’re going to do and we’re sticking to it.

What I think has evolved is you develop characters and relationships that you want to explore and Wil Wheaton is a perfect example of that. He just popped as our bad guy last year and we knew he was going to come back, so he became part of the fabric of the show. So I think we’re still doing the show we set out to do, but along the way we pick up people and themes that we want to explore.

Is it difficult to top yourselves in terms of the cons and schemes every week?

I don’t know if it’s so much trying to top ourselves but the challenge is always not to repeat yourself. If we had an actual con man sitting here, he would tell you that there are really only four cons, so the challenge of the show is finding ways to put those cons in the context of a setting where it seems fresh.

For example, we just did an episode called ‘The Studio Job,’ where Christian Kane’s character got to sing. The con we got to run in that was ‘the fiddle game,’ but the challenge of running the fiddle game was making the Eliot character the fiddle. He was the valuable commodity that we were manipulating into thinking is worth more than it actually is. So the challenge is always finding ways of injecting the con into new settings.

Do you make a conscious decision to keep the tone of the series relatively light?

Leverage 3.02 - Timoth Hutton and Elisabetta Canalis
Episode 3.02 The Reunion Job – Nathan Ford (Timoth Hutton) and Mystery Woman (Elisabetta Canalis) © 2010 Turner Network

Chris: Absolutely. The light/dark fight is the biggest thing and it’s tricky, because you don’t want the show to get so frothy that it lifts off the ground. You don’t want people to be cracking jokes while bullets are flying so we do really pay attention to the tone of the show. And we always try in every episode to have an emotional hook that grounds the episode, but that also gives us license to have fun.

That’s also a challenge, because we like to have fun. The writer’s room is run very much like a half-hour room. We make jokes, and you can in a situation where you’ve lost the emotional core of the episode and we try not to do that.

Are there certain combinations of characters that worked well together in ways that perhaps you hadn’t anticipated?

The big difference between TV and movies is that on TV, you get to try all kinds of different combinations. You can say, ‘Hey, let’s see what Carson and Eliot are like,’ which is something we did in season one, and we decided it was a pretty great combination, so we had to do more of that, but we also didn’t want that to take over the rest of the show, so Nate and Sophie are terrific together; let’s explore that. It’s very much dictated by chemistry.

I’ll give you an example not from Leverage but from another show, which went 207 episodes that I worked on, which was The King of Queens. When Michael Weithorn and David Litt wrote the pilot, it was supposed to be about Kevin James and his buddies who hung out in the garage and tried to escape from his wife. That was kind of the premise of the show, but the minute that Kevin James and Leah Remini set foot on stage together, Michael Weithorn looked at the monitor and said, ‘That’s the show!’ That’s what fueled the show for 207 episodes.

You’ve already had Christian Kane singing and Aldis Hodge playing the violin. Do you look for aspects of actor’s personality that can be brought into episodes of the show?

Leverage 2.08 - Aldish Hodge
Episode 2.08 The Ice Man Job – Alec Hardison (Aldish Hodge) © 2010 Turner Network

Absolutely. The minute that Aldis told me he liked the violin in season one, I said, ‘I’m going to find a way for you to play the violin in a con or a heist!’ It took me two seasons, but I figured out how to do it and he was fantastic. So we always try and do that.

Tell us what else is coming up this season.

For those who have been following the show, we have a little bit of an arc this season with a bad guy named Damien Moreau who’s the financier of a bank of evil. The team has been put under the screws of a mysterious Italian played by Elisabetta Canalis to go after this guy and all I can say without giving anything away is it ends in a pretty big explosive two-part season finale that is every inch the action movie that everybody wants to see on the show!

Leverage airs Sunday nights on TNT at 9 p.m. (ET/PT)