(Content note: Mild spoilers for Leverage and some of the later Discworld books.)
I was talking with Benny Vimes the other day about the Discworld books. I’d written that my favorite character in the Terry Pratchett Discworld books is Moist von Lipwig: he asked why, and I realized that the reason is also a big part of why I’ve been so infatuated with the TV show Leverage:
I like stories about scoundrels with a purpose.
Scoundrels in fiction can be so much fun. If you’re ever had fantasies about outwitting people, or breaking the rules and getting away with it, stories about thieves and grifters and charlatans can be massively entertaining. They’re especially fun if the characters are really good at it: it’s another version of competence porn.
But when you start really thinking about scoundrels, and the effect they have on people, the stories stop being so fun. When you rob someone, con them, defraud them, it can screw up their lives pretty badly. The Discworld books about Moist von Lipwig explore this explicitly: especially the first one, Going Postal, where Moist begins to fall in love with Adora Belle, a.k.a. Spike, and realizes she’s one of the people whose life he ruined.
Hence, scoundrels with a purpose.
The most obvious examples are the many, many versions of the Robin Hood trope, stories about robbing the rich and giving to the poor. You get the naughty vicarious thrill of swindling and theft, combined with the righteous thrill of seeing imbalances righted and justice done. Leverage plays with this explicitly: the tagline of the show is, “The rich and powerful take what they want. We steal it back for you.” And they don’t just get your money or property or reputation back: they often exact clever revenge against the rich and powerful perpetrators. The show is almost a self-parody at times — the bad guys are often so cartoonishly bad as to be ridiculous — but that’s part of the fun, and a big part of the escapist value.
Moist von Lipwig is a different twist on the purposeful scoundrel. Instead of being a Robin Hood, he channels his talents as a charming swindler into more-or-less honest enterprises that benefit society: reviving the derelict post office, energizing and modernizing the out-of-date bank, smoothing the way for the new steam train system. At first he takes on this role reluctantly, to say the least; but as the stories unfold, he learns to enjoy being part of humanity instead of outside and against it.
Of course, even when fictional scoundrels have a purpose, it doesn’t always alleviate the unease. One of our regular complaints about Leverage is that even though the crew are supposedly the good guys, they’re very blithe about the collateral damage they must be doing. Of course the show is supposed to be escapist fantasy, and part of that fantasy is that nobody but the mark gets hurt. But nitpicking is half the fun, and that doesn’t just mean nitpicking the logistics and practical details (Ingrid gets especially worked up when they get medical stuff wrong). It also means nitpicking the ways that the show fails to deliver on its basic escapist premise — thieves and grifters and hackers doing good, and only hurting people who clearly deserve it.