One of the great things about television is the mix of comfort and excitement that comes with know that once a week, you get to spend time with actors you like. Their charm and skill can go such a long way, even in the most thankless or boring roles, that we as viewers probably take them for granted. The debut of TNT's new spy thriller Legends brought that feeling to the forefront of my mind even more than usual, because we never get to spend enough time with Sean Bean. You know, one does not simply get to watch a show where his character lives and all that.
The good news about Legends' first episode is that it was fully aware of our society's need for a more stable and consistent Sean Bean fix. It was an opening hour defined almost exclusively by how awesome is to have Bean playing a highly intelligent, incredibly tough super-spy on TV every week. As the show began and we met Martin Odum, the character was in deep with a domestic extremist terrorist group, fully consumed by his cover—or "legend," as the show, which is based on a Robert Littell novel, refers to them—but totally ready to kick ass, save his informant (Brad Henke), and chew out the ATF for blowing up his six-month op. Then Legends did that pilot-y thing where all of the non-Odum characters discussed how amazing the guy is—or, conversely, how he might be "losing it," simply because he's been doing this very difficult job for far too long. Altogether, the first 15 minutes of the episode broadcasted to the audience, "Don't worry everybody, Sean Bean isn't going to die! And check out how cool his character is!"
To his credit, Bean was up to the task; playing a character who is playing a character isn't nearly as easy as he made it look. Thankfully, someone on the production staff made the truly great and rational decision to let Bean use his natural accent for the character's default speaking voice—even though the pilot had to include some dumb throwaway line about how he was raised abroad and thus "picked up" the accent, the result was that Bean was more effective in the moments when Odum slipped into his broken-down American hillbilly-ish "legend," Lincoln Dittmann. (Throwing glasses on him helped too, because WHAT A NERD, right?) I wouldn't necessarily call this an overly challenging role for a veteran actor like Bean, but he brought the right amount of pathos and ethos to a man who has indeed spent too much time in the field and can't quite "manage" real life, despite the fact that he clearly loves his family. And while believability isn't usually an issue for me when I'm watching shows like this, it certainly wasn't that hard to imagine Odum being as wonderful as everyone said he was because in Bean's hands, the character looked both entirely competent and extremely worn down.
In some regard, Legends purposefully didn't give Bean much to work with. While the series is definitely going to proceed as procedural-style show with a clear story engine, the big overarching "mystery" revolves exclusively around Odum's identity, and whether or not it's actually the baseline. Billy Brown showed up briefly to scare Odum into trying to remember something about his past, and wouldn't you know it, both Brown's disheveled informant and one of Odum's the tech nerds were murdered for trying to dig into whatever that something might be. If you're familiar with The Bourne Identity or any number of other spy stories, the seeds that were sown during this first hour won't seem particularly novel. Nevertheless, the reason that stories about "real identities," black-ops programs, and possible government conspiracies work so well—at least for a while—is that there are always a dozen different directions in which the rabbit hole could lead. The result is a high degree of paranoia that shows can use to their advantage, and given Legends' creative pedigree—24/Homeland producer Howard Gordon helped shepherd the project to air, along with Jeffrey Nachmanoff and Mark Bomback—I'm confident that the mystery of who Odum is and how he ended up in this position could yield some fun, twisty, summer storytelling.
The problem is that if the pilot is any indication of what Legends is going to look like each week, we might have to suffer through some pretty generic stuff to get to the Sean Bean of it all. Don't get me wrong, there's a fine cast here: Steve Harris (The Practice) is the man in charge; Ali Larter (Heroes)'s Crystal is also sort of in charge, and she has some sexual history with Odum; Tina Majorino (Veronica Mars) is playing the Tina Majorino tech girl role; and Morris Chestnut is supposed to show up sooner rather than later. That's a rock-solid crew of professionals, but they're all playing significantly generic types that, at least as of the pilot, exist solely to serve Odum. Larter had a couple of decent moments, one of which of course required her to strip down—almost literally, as she went undercover as a stripper—and frankly, she's perfect for a role like this. Yet, while that kind of characterization is to be expected in Episode 1, Legends is the kind of show where, given its premise and its network, you can safely assume that each episode will follow a similar pattern: Bean first, case second, everyone else third and beyond. That's okay, but with this caliber of performer? More, please.
That same sort of generic detail was on display with the case. Though Odum had been undercover for six months, the pilot kicked off right as the operation imploded and then didn't have a really strong story to tell about the clean-up effort, which involved taking down the "founding father" (played by Zeljko Ivanek). A couple of staid torture scenes here, a gun showdown there, and boom, it was over. What's the harm in having an undercover operation unspool over one hour of television? Years ago, Wiseguy pulled it off for a bit, so we know it can be done!
As tends to happen with crime-y procedurals on basic cable, there's not a lot to actively dislike about Legends. Really, this was one of the better TNT pilots I've seen in recent years, mostly because of the cast and because, in contrast to shows like King & Maxwell, it didn't try too hard to be "witty" or to fill its scenes with "banter." Legends is a straightforward spy drama, and in a world of forensic crime procedurals, it has a real value. Sean Bean is as great as you'd expect. Now let's hope that future episodes take a few more risks and give the supporting cast a bit more to do.
– Odum has been doing this job for so long that he sometimes shifts into legend mode at random, even when he's just trying to have a normal conversation. Okay, sure.
– There was a brief moment with Odum and Majorino's character that implied some kind of unknown connection between them. Something to look out for.
– This didn't feel like a particularly expensive pilot to me; if it was, it didn't come through on the screen. Lotta interior sets, and the climax of the episode suggested a bombing at a major G7 summit, only for things to come to an end in a warehouse setting. It'll be too bad if the show can't really "go" anywhere with its stories.
What'd you think? Will you be back for Episode 2?
AIRED ON 12/28/2015
Season 2 : Episode 10