A few days ago I watched the first couple episodes of Leverage: Redemption on Amazon Prime. For context, I am a die hard fan of original Leverage. Yes, it eventually got kind of repetitive and a little silly (“It’s a very distinctive haircut.”), but the show holds a special place in my heart. As a result, when I saw the reboot-sequel and that it included Hardison, Parker, Elliott, and Sophie I never considered what quality the show would be. Yay! My show is coming back! Of course that’s a good thing. But I failed to recall one far too common factor of entertainment these days.
Some creators don’t know why their original concept worked.
This is a bit of a broad claim, but I’d argue the exceptions that immediately come to everyone’s mind on hearing this are exactly that: Exceptions. We remember them because a good sequel/reboot/remake is so rare that the positive ones stick with us.
To be clear, it’s not that Leverage: Redemption is bad, per se. It’s… fine. There is decent chemistry, the situation makes sense, and I appreciate that they’re trying to address the shifts in the world that make the original feel out of touch these days. It even has some genuinely funny lines and call backs. I enjoyed watching the first couple episodes, for the most part. It just doesn’t have the spark that made the first one brilliant.
Middle Book Syndrome
Middle book syndrome is an extension of the sagging middle problem that many authors struggle with. The beginning of the story is sharp and carefully crafted. The end is poignant, thought-provoking, and fulfilling. And some stuff happens in the middle.
The difference is that middle book syndrome is more likely to get past a publisher (or in the case of my TV show, a producer) than sagging middles. Sagging middles are obvious (to an outside observer). There is an ongoing story and it just suddenly stops progressing for a while in one way or another, and then suddenly everything pops back into motion and the end sequence begins. Middle book syndrome will kill your fan base faster than a bad first book, because you can always recover from one bad start. Probably not in that series, but you can write another one that’s good. Middle book syndrome tells your reader that any good book you write has a chance of being a fluke and they should be prepared for every book to lose what makes the series special, even if you’re 5 books in and it hasn’t happened yet.
Let’s Provide… Context
To look more closely at this phenomenon, I’m going to compare and contrast Leverage: Redemption with The Incredibles II. There will be a few early spoilers for the new Leverage, but I don’t think anything particularly ground-breaking. Same for Incredibles II.
Original Leverage was exceptional because it took five fundamentally damaged individuals–each with a specific skill at which they exceled–and turned them into a found-family team trying to do things none of them would have considered doing on their own. It told us the concept was revolutionary and we had no choice but to accept it. All the characters did. And on top of that, the diverse character base gave us internal conflict while building respect and trust for each other. While the pitch for the story was “a group of thieves use their skills to stop entitled rich people from hurting others,” the complex chemistry of the group and their natural growth as a team is what made the show great.
Leverage: Redemption starts several years after the original ended. Sophie and Nate retired, Parker, Hardison, and Elliott, kept going, somehow Nate died, and the team came back together. As a quick spoiler to make things easier to discuss, very early in the show Hardison bows out of the new crew to manage the massive human rights network he built, so he is an influence but not a member of the long-term cast.
Many people might be upset that the show teased bringing the crew back together and then killed Nate and sent Hardison off on his own mission, but that’s not what bothered me. The problem is most evident to me when the new crew is discussing a job and Elliott quotes a proverb in Klingon. I believe the show when it tells me that Elliott learned Klingon on a dare from Hardison. They had that sort of relationship. But all that moment does for the current story is remind me that Elliott, Hardison, and Parker are a static trio. Their arcs are over.
Of course this is a difficult dilemma for any reboot or sequel. The characters ended in a good place, so they have a choice between regressing the progress, which would piss off fans, or ignoring the originals, which would alienate fans, or include them as secondary characters. Redemption tries to have its cake and eat it too by regressing Sophie with Nate’s death and including Parker and Elliott as if their arcs aren’t over. All this does is pit the original crew against the new additions, making the new characters feel weak and disconnected. The new show isn’t about five fundamentally damaged characters trying to make the world better, it’s about Parker and Elliot training some new thieves while trying to support Sophie through her grief.
The Incredibles II handles this challenge in a much better way. They pick up exactly where the original ended and they actually do something similar to Leverage: Redemption. The only “change” Incredibles II makes tot he original lore is to clarify that, after the Incredible family stops The Underminer at the end of the first movie, the public is still prone to blaming super heroes for their problems. Consider how much of a change that really is. The original movie displayed them charging to the rescue as a triumphant end to the story arc, but it never addressed the public opinion at all. Pixar didn’t necessarily change anything.
In that fight, Violet revealed her identity to the boy she liked and a lot of the city was damaged, so what happened? The government tried to clean up the mess, leaving the Incredible family living in a motel with no jobs and wiping the memories of Violet’s potential boyfriend. A perfect position for the opening to a sequel because Pixar understood what worked in their movie.
To compare this status with Leverage, the original ending presented Parker, Hardison, and Elliott as carrying on just as if Sophie and Nate hadn’t retired. They could have done the same thing Pixar did with Incredibles II. Sure, the crew tried to keep it up, but their dynamic was substantially changed and other problems arose. Instead, Redemption told us that everything went great. Elliott started a chain of food trucks used for all sorts of missions, Parker and Hardison were great, Hardison started a human rights empire, and they all started managing Leverage teams around the world. What story is there to even tell?
If, instead, Elliott and Parker had been less successful and felt insecure as Hardison built his empire–maybe even made a mistake that indirectly led to Nate’s death–we get the chance of conflict. They could still be close friends and all the development still holds, but then Elliott and Parker need something by going back to active jobs, Sophie needs them because Nate is gone, and the new guys are the same. Instead of Sophie needing a distraction while Parker and Elliott train two new screw-ups, we two newbies and three people each facing an existential crisis. They’re on equal footing and that gives the show the potential for greatness.
Of course no set up is more important that the follow through, but I would argue that both shows have decent follow-up. I said I enjoyed Leverage: Redemption, after all. The funny one-liners are still funny and the bad guys are still bad and it’s enjoyable watching them get taken down. But the set up forces the follow up to work differently.
The best twist Pixar could have imagined for Incredibles II was the decision for the backer to choose Elastigirl over Mr. Incredible, but it also fits with the story they needed to tell. Instead of another “Mr. Incredible punches things until his wife comes to save him,” we get the twin character arcs of stay-at-home-mom Elastigirl reclaiming who she was while punch-the-problem Mr. Incredible learns to be incredible at solving problems he can’t punch. That was pure gold as only Pixar can make. The main plot was… fine, but it wasn’t a movie that relied on a stellar central plot. The Incredibles I and II worked because of the complex character work that Pixar does so well.
The creators of Leverage: Redemption clearly thought the original worked because of the feel-good vibes of watching entitled jerks getting taken down a notch amid a storm of witty one-liners. But Leverage was just as much about the complex characters as The Incredibles. The result is that all of the new Leverage episodes feel like Parker and Elliott trying to patch up the mistakes of these crappy new characters. The third act breakdown is never because Parker ran off on her own or Elliott forgot to mention that assassin that hates him.
So what does all this mean to someone looking for writing advice? I’m examining these shows because I think they demonstrate an important element of story-telling. We’ve all heard the claim that every book in a series has to be able to stand on its own, and this is why. If your sequel leans too hard on the previous book, it is likely to end up with middle book syndrome, feeling like the “and then some stuff happened” sagging middle of your series instead of a compelling entry in the story line.
So what can you do to avoid this (besides “know what made the book good”)? I recommend writing a short, catchy pitch for each book as if you were selling each as a stand alone. If your pitch sounds like a complete story, you’re probably okay. Just make sure the book matches the pitch. But if your pitch sounds like “Book 1 except this changed and also they have to do this now,” you might be in trouble. And if you are still unsure, here’s the short pitches for the movies I’ve discussed here:
|The Incredibles I||A family of super heroes struggles to adapt to life without the freedom to use their powers and learns the importance of family|
|Leverage (original)||A team of loner thieves comes together to stop corrupt people from taking advantage of others and becomes a found family|
|The Incredibles II||A family of super heroes tries to convince society to allow heroes to fight crime while trying to protect their family’s internal relationships|
|Leverage: Redemption||A group of close friends who used to steal things from corrupt people for the greater good reunite and decide to do it again, but due to some changes recruit some new members and a lot of things have changed in the world since the last time|
One of these things is not like the others….