John Rogers 

Chris Downey
“If a writer had pitched a Ponzi scheme in the first season, I would have punched him in the head because, who’s gonna fall for a Ponzi scheme?” - John Rogers
Black Hats, White Collars 
Written by Dylan Callaghan

The new TNT show Leverage, starring erstwhile ‘80s heartthrob Timothy Hutton, shoots a new-era Robin Hood arrow right to the heart of these bone-chillingly cynical, Ponzi-schemed, anti-corporate times. The series centers on a band of honest crooks who, under the leadership of a non-criminal, ex-insurance man out for justice (played by Hutton), ply their thieving, felonious skills to make right the wrongs of the real nasty crooks – the white-collar scammers who make a jewelry heist look like a vending machine job.

The fellas behind this well-timed caper show, which returns for its second season on July 15, are John Rogers, a feature writer who’s had a hand in scripts including the first Transformers and The Core, and Chris Downey, who spent most of this young century on the star-making sitcom The King of Queens. Rogers met Downey originally in the ‘90s on their first jobs, Cosby – not the iconic The Cosby Show but the more dubious later reprisal. The two remained friends and drinking pals and eventually, when producer Dean Devlin asked Rogers to write a heist show, he asked Downey to partner with him on it. With some input from Devlin, the two took the idea to TNT – before Bernie Madoff was a dirty word – and immediately got a pilot deal.

They spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about their uncannily fortuitous timing, their views on capitalism, and Downey’s surprising legal past.

What is the essence of this show for each of you guys?

John Rogers: I have the very artsy log line and Chris has the much better phrase that you can actually build a show around – he always says it’s Main Street versus Wall Street. My quote is from the poet Alexander Pope: “The law is a spider web which catches little flies and lets the big bugs escape.” The idea that the law nabs guys who are just muddling through all the time while the guys who steal billions [and] manipulate the whole system… go free. You know; steal a thousand dollars, go to jail. Steal a million, become a legend.

Chris Downey: One-hour television’s become so dark, it’s so filled with serial killers and sexual predators… it felt like there was a real opportunity to go after some villains that are really affecting a bunch of people’s lives that you’re not seeing represented on television.

And you’re saying the current situation, with the Madoffs and the AIGs, was not on the radar at the conception of this.

Photo: © 2009 Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.
Timothy Hutton in Leverage.

John Rogers: No, no, it really broke just as we were about to go on the air.

How much has this been fueling the writing?

John Rogers: It made the second season easier, let’s put it that way.

Was it manna from heaven?

John Rogers: It is a little bit, but it’s one of those things where, if a writer had pitched a Ponzi scheme in the first season, I would have punched him in the head because, who’s gonna fall for a Ponzi scheme?

Chris Downey: A $20 billion Ponzi scheme? Get real.

John Rogers: In a way what it proved to us is that reality is much simpler and cleaner and more ridiculous than anything you can come up with in a writer’s room.

Chris Downey: And, you know, even though this stuff really hit the headlines when we were breaking season two, when we were conceiving the show, it was in the wake of Enron and Tyco. This has really been building for over a decade. I had stock in WorldCom that evaporated. In my previous life I represented guys like this, so this is not a world that is unfamiliar.

What do you mean about your previous life?

Chris Downey: Well, I was a white-collar criminal defense attorney.

Oh, my God, I should have known that.

John Rogers: Yeah, that’s what he was doing when he was hired for Cosby. I literally remember the night he showed up on set still in his lawyer suit.

Chris Downey: I might’ve even had suspenders.

Wow. So you have a real view into this world.

Chris Downey: Yeah, I’ve sat in rooms with people who have defrauded their clients out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

I’m curious on a side note, do you guys feel anti-white-collar or anti-capitalist after all this?

Chris Downey: Oh boy… John?

John Rogers: Here’s the thing. We’re capitalists. This is the only privately-funded television show being made right now. We are a big company that’s independently making its own television show, not sucking at the teat of a major corporation. This is venture capitalism at its finest. There’s no other studio out there – this is it.

There’s nothing wrong with capitalism. I like capitalism. It pays my bills. What is wrong is when we pretend that there isn’t an inherent temptation toward corruption when there’s an awful lot of money on the table. When you put that kind of money on the table, people get greedy and people get stupid.

The show doesn’t punish people for being rich, the show punishes people for hurting other people.

This show also has a great, quick sense of humor – reminiscent of old classics like The Rockford Files. Is there any peril in having that light sense of jokiness when you’re doing a crime show?

Chris Downey: [to Rogers] Go ahead. I have an opinion on this, [but] hopefully our opinions are the same.

John Rogers: The thing is, no one has ever stopped watching a show because it was too funny.

Chris Downey: That was my opinion. Thank you, John. No one has ever said, “This show unexpectedly made me laugh. I’m not watching that again.”

John Rogers: To a certain degree we have an internal gyroscope. I’ll be the first to admit that I like a big, high drama. I like a good hero moment, a movie moment. You don’t sacrifice those for the humor. I want you to genuinely be pissed off or excited or engaged or really committed in the dramatic moments here.

What’s the one thing this show has taught you as a writer?

John Rogers: It’s okay to drink in the room. There’s no shame in opening up a bottle of Irish whiskey during the day.

Chris Downey: I’ll say it’s taught me the value of compressed time and space. We build these elaborate cons, and time is the enemy of these things. The more time and space the characters have to spend in this fake world that we create for our marks, the greater the chance the audience will say, “Wait a minute, wouldn’t he just look through that door and figure out he’s not where he thinks he is?” This year I think the back half of our shows almost unfold in real time. I realized this year that con plots work a lot like farce plots – they tend to happen in real time.

So in a sense you have to move fast enough so the audience doesn’t see the sleight of hand?

John Rogers: The audience is a partner in the sleight of hand. If you lie to an audience, the audience can tell. You have to enter into a contract with the audience… It’s like [saying], “Look, we’re living in Heist World. These are the rules of Heist World. We’re gonna be fast enough and clever enough that you’re going to enjoy going on this trip with us. You will give us trust, we will give you fun.”