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The Oregonian: Catching up with "Leverage" -- "The First Contact Job" goes to Portland State University
Author: Kristi Turnquist
Posted: August 14, 2012

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Being in Portland definitely seems to agree with Nate, Sophie, Eliot, Parker and Hardison, as Season 5 of "Leverage" has so far offered episodes that are markedly more playful than in some seasons past. 

Maybe because the team is officially based in Portland -- not just filming here on the sly, as it were, and pretending to be in Boston -- everyone seems to be relaxing and having fun.

Sunday night's outing, "The First Contact Job," was another example of the angst-free spirit (so far, anyway) of this "Leverage" season. It was also a nifty showcase for the comic stylings of Christian Kane, who, as Eliot, got to do plenty more than his usual face-punching exploits.

In "The First Contact Job," the team was helping a researcher who had been victimized by his crumb-bum former partner, a slime-emitting glory hound named James Kanak, played by Neil Hopkins with embracing-his-inner-creep gusto. (In case you're wondering where you've seen Hopkins, his roles include playing the drugged-out brother of Dominic Monaghan's character, in "Lost.")

Kanak is a self-styled mogul who stole his partner's idea for a hybrid jet engine, and is obsessed with plastering his name all over everything up to, and including, a low-flow toilet.

"What kind of guy names a toilet after himself?" wonders Eliot.

To bring down Kanak, Nate (Timothy Hutton) and the crew devise a plan to exploit Kanak's fascination with the idea of making first contact with aliens, a feat the egonomaniacal Kanak thinks will make his name live forever.

Naturally, the gang makes it all look easy -- in fact, a little too easy. This was one of the smoother-running cons, with Kanak taking the bait at pretty much every turn.

But getting there was most of the fun. Among the highlights:

*  Oh, Portland, how the camera loves you: A prominent location this week was Portland State University, only the campus wasn't playing itself. Several scenes filmed in PSU buildings were supposedly happening in Kanak's headquarters. There was also a brief cameo by the PSU Cafe Yumm location, its sign visible behind Parker (Beth Riesgraf). It's a relief to actually see recognizable green Portland streets signs, and Naito Parkway, and Oregon license plates on vehicles, shown just as they are.

*  It's an Eliot Wonderland!: Our favorite tough guy got to show his lighter side in this episode, with one good moment after another. First, he's aggrieved about a cooking-related issue -- someone had the temerity to bring him iodized salt, not sea salt. Then Eliot managed to pull out convincing-sounding scientific blather to counter Hardison (Aldis Hodge) and his "Fermi's Paradox" monologue. Eliot, to my amazement, joins in when Hardison launches into a theme song as they drive "Lucille," the van. Eliot even busts out the falsetto.

But that was just a warm-up for Eliot pretending to be a rube who's picking up the same alien signal that has Kanak convinced he's making contact with extraterrestrials. With a knit cap pulled down on his head, a dumb-cluck expression and a hick-from-the-sticks accent, Eliot convinces Kanak that he's a true alien believer. Sophie (Gina Bellman) is impressed with Eliot's thespian abilities: "Eliot," she tells him via earbud, "I'm loving the choices you're making with this character!"

In-joke alert: Asked his name, Eliot says he's "Riker, Willy Riker," in honor of episode director Jonathan Frakes' "Star Trek: The Next Generation" character. (Frakes has been a frequent director of "Leverage" episodes.)

* Hardison and Parker are a man and woman in black: As part of the scheme, Hardison and Parker take a break from her incessant suggestions for adrenaline-packed dates, to dress up in "Men in Black"-style ensembles.

* Kanak's the name: There's also a running joke in which Parker mispronounces the fame-obsessed Kanak's last name, which gets an added spin as Nate -- posing as a guy who can hook Kanak up with a satellite -- calls their mark, "Mr. Kojak."

* Parker, phone home: Dating Hardison is also bringing out Parker's goofy side, since she keeps teasing everyone by doing her imitation of the "E.T." alien's voice.

* Let it rain: Of course there were umbrellas in the background in some scenes, since this is Portland, after all (though, admittedly, not Portland of the last few heat-wave days). There's a coda at the episode's end, in which Parker's plans for a picnic under the stars are foiled by, as she says, "this stupid rain." But Hardison, showing off his good-boyfriend bona fides, has rigged up some twinkling green electronic stars for their picnic. Aww.

Next week, there's chef-related trouble, which really sounds Portlandy.

"Leverage" fans, what did you think of "The First Contact Job"? Should Eliot pack up his punches and turn comedian? And how are you liking Season 5 so far?

-- Kristi Turnquist on Twitter