tv review

Legends Provides Good Actors With Steady Paychecks and Not Much Else

Photo: Richard Foreman, SMPSP/TM & ? Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.

Having gotten the obligatory “Sean Bean lives” joke out of the way — I assume you can make up your own! — we can proceed to evaluating the actor’s new star vehicle, Legends. I wish there were more to say.

Developed by Howard Gordon (24, Homeland) from a novel by Robert Littell, it’s about a veteran FBI agent named Martin Odum (Sean Bean) who has a talent for creating and inhabiting characters for use in dangerous deep-cover investigations of the sorts of organizations where traitors are tortured with battery cables. I haven’t read Littell’s novel, but I’m assured by fans that the writer’s work tends more toward John le Carré than James Bond. The TV show is more Bond by way of 24. Instead of the retired and reluctant hero from the book, we have a craggily handsome bruiser who’s handy with fists and guns. Legends makes a grand show of setting up a tortuous, vaguely Don Draper–like interior journey for our lone-wolf hero — in the pilot, he’s stalked by a shadowy figure who intimates that Martin doesn’t know all there is to know about his true self — but the character is such a pile of overworked cop-show and spy-show elements (he’s in too deep, he’s a cranky and sarcastic maverick who resents people telling him what to do, his work destroyed his marriage, etc.), that there’s not much to him beyond the charisma that Bean naturally brings.

That’s not nothing: Bean gives his velvety, fairy-tale-narrator voice a workout, and if there were an Emmy for Outstanding Wearing of a Black Leather Jacket, they could close the category today. Bean carries himself with such easygoing authority that you don’t mind so much that his opening “legend” — pretending to be a stuttering, bespectacled, right-wing anti-government terrorist trying to get in good with Storm Front types — plays like a mediocre Walter White impersonation with fussy, actor-ish embellishments; it’s hard to believe that such a display could fool the people he’s trying to fool. Another identity teased at the end of episode two seems more promising: Dante, a high-rolling, hard-living, decadent playboy arms-dealer who once sold weapons to the Croats and Serbs simultaneously. The glimpses of this character suggest hungover memories of a raucous night of post-Oscar partying that may or may not have included a visit to a terrorist training camp.

Gordon and his team work overtime to puff up Martin’s, well, legend. We’re told that he’s a “rock star” and that “the most naturally gifted undercover operative we’ve got … maybe the best we’ve ever had.” He once had a tryst with his superior officer, Crystal McGuirk (Ali Larter, whose notion of “authoritative” amounts to seeming vaguely angry about everything), so of course there’s unsubtly teasing banter between them. The pilot includes a scene where Martin’s right-wing nut-job character is meeting with terrorists at a strip club, and Crystal has to pose as an exotic dancer and sneak him information in a back room while giving him a lap dance. The pleasure they both take in this ruse is amusing, but not as amusing as imagining the same scene with Crystal as a dentist with a tray full of scrapers and Martin as a patient, or the Crystal character played by Paul Giamatti and both the one-night-stand backstory and the back-room lap dance performed with poker faces.

As is the case with many basic-cable series, Legends has a deep bench of character actors, any one of whom has the chops to star in his or her own series but probably won’t, casting timidity being what it is. Morris Chestnutt, who has never not been likable, appears in a thankless role as Tony Rice, a fellow government agent who’s convinced there’s more to Martin than his file indicates and that his actual history includes some not-quite-kosher aspects. The great Steve Harris plays Martin’s boss Nelson Gates, whose “your badge, your gun, my desk” role consists mainly of berating the star, barking exposition, and reading criminals’ backstories off PowerPoint screens during staff meetings. Veronica Mars’ Tina Majorino, one of the rare young actresses who’s so special that you can’t accurately compare her to anyone else, is shoehorned into a data-jockey role. She spends most of the first two episodes typing on keyboards and muttering asides that are designed to make sure you didn’t misunderstand any plot points (“He’s improvising to give the follow team time to get there!”). 

Legends does this sort of thing a lot, to the point where you start to feel insulted. There are lots of “Remember this guy?” flashbacks to people you met five minutes ago. Cumulatively, they start to make Legends seem like the story of a guy who’s secretly battling early-onset Alzheimer’s. Legends provides good actors with regular paychecks. It may yet amount to more than that, but I’m not holding my breath.

TV Review: TNT’s Legends