Two of today's fictional television heroes -- Nathan Ford (played by Timothy Hutton) on TNT's Leverage and Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) on USA's Burn Notice -- are people you would want on your side. They are clever. Creative. Resourceful. Connected. Agile. They assist those unable to help themselves, people who are victims of a variety of unfair and often terrible circumstances.
Though they are sometimes paid for their heroics, Ford, Weston and their respective support teams are presented to television audiences as doing what they do because they are noble, kind-hearted individuals who care about the little guy. They also operate according to their own code of ethics, frequently lying and breaking the law to help the powerless, the underling, or the disadvantaged out of a difficult situation. As the promotional trailer to Leverage states -- "Sometimes bad guys makes the best good guys" -- a line that reinforces the primary message in both shows: Sometimes it is best to do "what's right" even if it is legally wrong or arguably unethical. What makes these shows-with their unapologetic representation of such behavior-so popular?
According to reception theory, a number of factors can influence the way audiences read novels, watch movies and view television programs, including the viewers' identity, their pre-conceived notions, and the then-current social, historic, and political issues (Costello and Moore, 2007). A closer look at Leverage and Burn Notice can help shed light on the shows' popularity, particularly when examined through the lens of the historical moment in which the shows are being watched.
Leverage is about a team of criminals, led by Ford, who work together to assist those who have been taken advantage of by corrupt individuals with tremendous power. Over the first two seasons the team used numerous illegal and deceptive methods to right the wrongs they encountered. They bankrupt a corrupt judge, assist a horse trainer who has been cut off from his livelihood, get revenge on a company that makes a harmful product, and stop a vicious diamond dealer. Burn Notice also follows a team of individuals known for their broad interpretations of the law as they help people who are in trouble. Based around the character of former spy Michael Weston, who was "burned" (fired and turned into a non-person) in his role as a spy-essentially putting him out of the espionage business and leaving him with nothing-Burn Notice follows Weston as he attempts to pick up the pieces of his life and, most importantly, find out who burned him and why. To make money as he investigates, Weston and his two friends take on jobs that involve assisting those who are in trouble. Over the first three seasons, Weston and his team have found kidnapped children, brought a murderer to justice, recovered swindled money and thwarted drug dealing police.
While the shows clearly represent "bad" behavior, the personal background attributed to each of the lead characters sheds a different light on those actions. In the course of watching Leverage, the viewer learns that, as the ringleader of this group, Ford is wrestling with the loss of his son, a loss that may have been prevented if his health insurance company had paid for an experimental treatment. Ford is angry at the power and corruption he experienced himself, and which he begins to see everywhere in the world around him. Playing by the rules, the show suggests, led to his son's death, a death that might have been avoided if Ford had stepped outside the legal system that gives insurance companies the final say over what treatments a person can or cannot receive. Ford's response is to fight against that power in his own way, taking revenge on the system that killed his son by using any methods he can to help other victims survive.
Like Leverage's Ford, Burn Notice's Weston is also angry -- angry at the government for whom he worked as a spy and those who burned him for reasons he cannot quite determine. In contrast to Ford, however, whose actions are based on revenge, Weston acts on his conscience (and sometimes his need to make money) doing what he feels is right. Given the circumstances (neither is acting in accordance with any specific law). Weston can help those in need when no one else can. These back-stories offer viewers the chance to excuse the characters for their wrong actions, especially since engaging in such illegal behavior accomplishes a positive good outcome for those least able to defend or help themselves. The willingness of contemporary viewers not only to forgive the characters' behavior but to hail them as heroes speaks to an important shift in American culture and helps explain the popularity of the programs.
Returning to reception theory, one of the factors that undoubtedly influences both Burn Notice's and Leverage's positive reception is the historical moment in which they are being viewed. A number of national and international events have contributed to a social-political climate where the wrongdoings of the powerful have resulted in citizen mistrust and disgust, not to mention a feeling of helplessness among the "little guys," ordinary men and women who have fallen victim to events beyond their control: the subprime mortgage crisis and resulting economic downturn, the proliferation of lying and cheating politicians, the BP oil spill and revelations about what the company knew in advance of potential disaster. These events, and others like them, have led to a cultural zeitgeist marked by distrust of those in power along with a corresponding longing to see ordinary people stand up to that power -- even through deceptive practices and illegal behavior -- when it is misused.
Positive reception of shows like Leverage and Burn Notice, then- where helpless people are saved by illegal actions-may be in part due to contemporary viewers' interest in moral relativism rather than moral imperatives, the idea that what is right or wrong is not absolute. Rather, morality is based on the circumstances and one's point of view, a perspective that, in these shows anyway, is anchored firmly in the camp of the ordinary person. Both programs' narratives adhere to this idea in their unfolding storylines and plot resolutions. They implicitly present the argument that the only way for the vulnerable to win is to make use of loose interpretations of the law and that, far from being criminals, those who do so are today's heroes.
The contemporary social-political climate is fraught with situations where the average American is suffering as a result of a powerful person's or corporation's poor judgments, selfish choices, or greed. In this historical context, audiences may just be looking for stories of unconventional heroes like Ford and Weston who assist people who stand powerless in the face of seemingly impossible situations. Because both Leverage and Burn Notice are about fighting and prevailing over the corrupt and powerful in the name of the little guy, and because this fight for ordinary citizens is represented in a positive light regardless of the methods used by the lead characters, the shows resonate with today's viewers-offering them a fantasy victory of the vulnerable over the powerful. In doing so, definitions of what is "right" and what is "wrong," what is "good" and what is "bad" become dislocated and even reversed. Viewers forget the illegal behaviors the main characters exhibit as they engage in unlawful solutions to problems of power. In 2010, this may be not only what American audiences want, but what they need.