An old concept, updated, turns up in a breezy new series tonight on cable's TNT, continuing the fragmentation of the TV audience that's making it ever harder for the big broadcasters to get along.

Leverage

(premiering at 10 p.m. before going to its regular slot Tuesday nights at the same hour) stars Timothy Hutton as a disaffected insurance investigator who rounds up a band of talented misfits and leads them on capers that help reinforce your faith in truth and justice, if not the American way.

It's the American way of corporate greed, political corruption, war profiteering and entrenched criminality that gives these former thieves their brand-new raison d'etre: righting wrongs and helping little people remain upright against the buffeting of the powerful.

Edward Woodward used to do that on

The Equalizer

in the late '80s, materializing in his perfectly pressed trench coat to bop and blast bad guys who were harassing the meek and the mild.

The new team is way more sophisticated, utilizing an absurd array of technology, as well as mondo martial moves, gee-whiz gymnastics, and the cleverest cons - single, double and triple reverses - to wreak vengeance on the miscreants. The stakes can be great - $300 million in cash in one episode - and in the process, our heroes take a little taste for themselves.

Hutton, you may remember, won the supporting-actor Oscar for

Ordinary People

in 1980, five years before

The Equalizer

was born, but seven years after the death of the original incarnation of the show

Leverage

most resembles:

Mission: Impossible

.

The Impossibles usually traveled to weird little countries whose despots were out to undermine the United States. The Imps looked and operated pretty much like the

Leverage

team, however: a tech-savvy black guy, a one-man wrecking crew, and a sultry seductress who can pull the wool, cotton, silk or polyester over the eyes of even the cagiest criminal.

New to the mix is the cutest little blond second- (or 52d-) story woman. She's no cat burglar. She's a kitten burglar. She rappels blithely off the highest roof and loves money, not the stuff it buys. "What is it with women and shoes?" she asks her more feminine partner.

Other than Hutton, you've probably never heard of the people who play these paragons, which is par for the course on basic-cable drama: one big star (Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick, Holly Hunter) and a bunch of no-names.

These dramas, most of them equal to or better than most of those on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, have proliferated in the last few years, meaning that if you skip cable (or, so as not to seem like too much of a Comcast booster, satellite), you're missing some of the good stuff on the tube.

On Jan. 7, Close's

Damages

, as good as TV gets, returns to FX, where

The Shield

, another great one that helped start the original-drama cable trend, wrapped its run a couple of weeks ago.

Nip/Tuck

returns the night before.

Monk

and

Psych

return Jan. 9 to USA, where

The Starter Wife

with Debra Messing is currently running. TNT plans to unveil a big-deal dramedy with her

Will & Grace

costar Eric McCormack on Jan. 26, behind the return of

The Closer

.

Cable channels can afford to make better shows because they don't have to program a full prime-time slate every night, their series have far fewer episodes (

Leverage

's first season is scheduled for 13, for instance, as opposed to the broadcasters' standard 22), and they don't rely solely on advertising for their operating dollars.

Big-time cable outfits such as USA, TNT and FX get between 30 and 75 cents per subscribing household per month from companies such as Comcast; such channels have more than 90 million subscribing households nationwide, out of the U.S. total of 114.5 million TV households, as estimated by Nielsen Media Research.

That would be enough coin to attract the

Leverage

team if these channels were fleecing the public, but the cable audience is up double digits this year, while broadcast is off about 8 percent, so it seems the cablers are already the good guys.

Jonathan Storm:

Leverage

Premieres at 10 tonight on TNT. Moves to 10 p.m. Tuesdays.

To comment on this article, go to: http://go.philly.com/askstorm. Contact television critic Jonathan Storm privately at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly. com/jonathanstorm.