‘Leverage’ steals an election 

Sunday, 8 p.m. (TNT)
TNT’s “Leverage” is a funnier “Mission: Impossible,” in which Timothy Hutton’s merry band of thieves, con artists and hackers set up elaborate stings to thwart that week’s bad guy. The series makes expert use of cheesy accents, stagy disguises and unlikely gizmos, not to mention wisecracks at the tensest moments.

In the latest episode, the team members bluff their way into an island nation’s presidential election as campaign consultants, hoping to vanquish the moneyman behind the corrupt government. It’s as enjoyable as ever to watch the con’s setup and execution, but the plot also allows for incisive political satire. Hutton and company show how easy it is to steal an election, American-style. You simply find a mannequin who looks the part of a politician, teach him the requisite clichés, produce a few scurrilous ads, trump up a scandal against your opponent, and voilà — it’s the 2010 midterm election all over again.

If only subverting democracy were this fun in real life.

Christmas in Washington

Friday, 7 p.m. (TNT)

After the last couple of years, the phrase “Christmas in Washington” doesn’t really summon up a cozy, wholesome image. Democrats and Republicans have shown that they can’t agree on anything, so why would Christmas be any different? If the liberals voted in favor of sugarplums and eggnog, the conservatives would surely vote against them.

This annual special, usually attended by the president and other prominent politicians, features Ellen DeGeneres, Miranda Cosgrove, Annie Lennox, Matthew Morrison and Mariah Carey. If nothing else, let’s hope that the Democrats and Republicans can agree that Nickelodeon star Cosgrove is outrageously cute and charming. If they can’t, the nation is in bigger trouble than I thought.

Gold Rush: Alaska Friday, 9 p.m. (Discovery) In this reality series, a group of Oregon men decide to leave their jobs and families to risk life and limb prospecting for gold in Alaska. The guys have to cart several tons of decrepit mining equipment over 2,000 miles, dealing with busted tires and blown fuses.

Once in Alaska, they have to get the equipment over rotting bridges and, when that proves impossible, drive it right through raging rivers. They risk death in several dozen ways, and that’s before the bears show up.

The conditions are horrific, but these men are desperate. All have been hit hard by the recession, and if they don’t strike gold, they’ll have to return to abject poverty.

Actually, the series makes abject poverty look like a semi-attractive alternative to prospecting for gold.

Ricky Gervais: Out of England 2 — The Stand-Up Special Saturday, 9 p.m. (HBO) I love comedian Ricky Gervais’ TV series (“The Office,” “Extras”), but his standup act is more problematic. In this HBO special, he picks on fat people, heroin addicts, sexually molested little girls and other beleaguered types.

His tone is mean-spirited as he adopts the persona of the smug celebrity who can’t be bothered with lesser mortals. Yes, it’s a comic stance, but it’s not one that makes me laugh very much. Why?

That’s a tricky question. I can laugh at other mean-spirited comedians — for example, Joan Rivers, whose live act I caught this fall. Rivers tells similarly edgy jokes but makes you guffaw at them — a cathartic guffaw that proves you can find humor in the things that make you most uncomfortable. I can’t quite explain how Rivers does it, except to say that it’s some alchemy of expert writing and acting. In other words, art.

“I hope I haven’t offended anyone with any of the subjects,” Gervais says near the end of his special. “There’s nothing you shouldn’t joke about — it depends on what the joke is.”

I agree with that, and can only conclude that Ricky Gervais needs different jokes and a different way of telling them.

Million Dollar Money Drop Monday, 7 p.m. (Fox) This game show distinguishes itself from the pack by handing contestants a million dollars at the outset. They don’t have to win the money; they have to keep from losing it by answering multiple-choice questions.

Since most Americans have seen their own piles of money disappear in the recession, “Million Dollar Money Drop” can’t help but touch a nerve. Is there any way for President Obama and Congress to prevent the contestants from losing their money?

Price of Admission: America’s College Debt Crisis Tuesday, 8 p.m. (CNBC) CNBC investigates families’ struggles with college costs, which are rising at twice the rate of inflation. The report finds that the average college student graduates with tens of thousands in student-loan debt — a debt that can’t be wiped out by bankruptcy.

Thanks, CNBC, for bumming us out right before Christmas. It’s gonna take at least three viewings of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to get ourselves back in the proper holiday mood.

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