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tv review

Seitz on Legit: One More Trip to the Poison Testosterone Well, With Feeling

LEGIT -- Pilot -- Episode 1 (Series Premiere, Airs Thursday, January 17, 10:30 pm e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) D.J. Qualls as Billy, Dan Bakkedahl as Steve, Jim Jefferies as Jim

Legit (FX, Thursdays, 10:30 p.m.) is the kind of show that returns from a commercial break with a shot of two guys sitting at a bar as seen from the back, the camera positioned at barstool-level to showcase the star's ass crack. That’s not a slam, just one of my notes on this star vehicle for actor-comedian Jim Jefferies. My notes also include, “Beta males acting like alphas” and “Louie without as much imagination” and “The comedy of pathetic grand gestures” and “Kind of like Californication, except they’re not constantly strong-arming you into thinking the hero is cool, and nobody’s getting laid.”

Well, okay — not nobody. Tonight’s pilot finds the hero, Jim Jefferies (played by you-know-who) halfheartedly resolving to quit being a sardonic, dead-hearted bastard and try to do nice things for others. His first big gesture is to help his best friend Steve (Dan Bakkedahl) bust his Muscular Dystrophy–afflicted, bedridden kid brother Billy (D.J. Qualls) out of a convalescent home and take him to a whorehouse so that he finally loses his virginity. “I’m 32 years old and I’ve never been laid,” Billy moans. His pecker, we’re told, is the only appendage from the neck down that still works. One takes one’s luck where one can find it, and what do you know, Jim is here to help. “I’m an alien of extraordinary abilities, Steve,” Jim says,  referring to the fact that he is Australian. “I’m like E.T.” That’s not even close to being true, but I like how he says it, his sneaky bastard voice seeming to issue from somewhere besides the inside of his own body, as if somebody offscreen is playing ventriloquist with a real person.

Created by Jefferies and writer-director Peter O’Fallon (The Riches, The Unusuals), Legit plays to FX’s core audience: straight guys who dig watching meditations on the pleasure and pain of being a man. Some of the cable channel’s shows feed that fascination with red meat (Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and in their farcical ways, Anger Management and Archer). Others show the comic flip side: the unease, even terror, that comes with realizing that you’re just not crazy-badass enough to hang with somebody like Rescue Me’s Tommy Gavin or Justified’s Raylan Givens, so you might as well aim lower and try to get those hallucinations of talking dogs under control (Wilfred) or take that shot at Letterman’s job (Louie).

I oversimplify for comic effect — Louie in particular is too rich to be boiled down into a talking point — but if you’ve watched even a little bit of FX’s original programming, you know how to recognize the brand as well as its more artful variants. Alphas and betas: Those are FX’s main character types. No femme-centric stories are allowed, except on American Horror Story, easily the campiest, gayest, wildest thing on the channel’s lineup; when I see the Ryan Murphy show’s title, I picture Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter fanning himself and smirking.

But as it will say on my tombstone, I digress. The pilot of Legit started to bore me around the halfway mark, not because it’s badly made (it’s smartly acted, directed, and written), but because I’ve just seen so many cable series about marginalized carousers boozing, smoking, and screwing to stave off existential panic that I’m not convinced that another variant is necessary. We’re full up here, folks.

But then, just as I began to mentally tune out, the pilot took a hard right turn into lyricism, scoring a montage of a debauched road trip to Mumford & Sons’ desperately triumphant “The Cave.” The juxtaposition of song and onscreen action jolted me back to full attention, and made me care enough to watch the second and third episodes.* They’re not better or worse, necessarily, just different, and equally hard to pigeonhole. FX has dipped into the poisoned testosterone well too many times, but this series is just peculiar enough to make me think that the producers, writers, and actors are working instinctually and still trying to shape the material into a form that preserves their impulses without entombing them with cliché TV “beats.” This show isn’t art quite yet, but it’s artful. Tiresome as it sometimes is, there’s something to it.

* A critic who attended press tour told me that the Mumford and Sons song will be subbed out with a different song due to rights clearance issues. Bummer, that.