'Legends' Review: Sean Bean Returns In By-The-Numbers Spy Thriller
Legends is based loosely on Robert Littell’s novel Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation, and developed by Executive Producer Howard Gordon, who also produces Homeland, Tyrant and the recently completed 24: Live Another Day. This busy schedule means that there isn’t one show that Gordon can devote himself to, and this latest series suffers for it.
If only to catch up on the spy nomenclature, the title refers to an undercover operative’s fake bio. Martin Odum (Sean Bean) works for the FBI as an operative, seamlessly melting into the different covers he’s given. The problem is that his home life is a train wreck and he’s having issues with his sanity — he sometimes drifts into the characters he plays, signing checks or speaking with the accent of a fake person he’s created for a mission. Regardless, he’s still the best at what he does (the FBI must be in dire straits) so Odum and his personalities run roughshod over everyone, including coworkers who tense and become awkward around him.
The first two episodes were screened ahead of time from TNT, so the structure of the show is beginning to take shape. The pilot was a one-off adventure that also hints at a mythology (Odum’s own identity may be a legend and he isn’t aware of it), while the second episode’s story leads into episode three. It is likely that the series will have multi-episode arcs so Odum’s abilities can be shown while also testing his sanity along the way. The problem is that we’ve seen much of the show already in different forms.
Legends most closely resembles Gordon’s 24. Odum is roughly Jack Bauer from season 1: he and his wife are estranged, he’s a super-agent who plays by his own rules, he’s fond of rendition and violence and he has an on-again off-again relationship with a coworker. Hell, Tina Marjorino even plays a discount Chloe! The argument can be made that people may not remember all this stuff — 24 premiered thirteen years ago after all — but the show is for fans of the genre, and advertised as coming from the Executive Producer of 24. There’s going to be carry over.
Much of the supporting cast is just one genre cliché after another. Steve Harris plays below his abilities as the tough as nails but overworked boss. By episode 2 “Chemistry,” Ali Larter’s Crystal has already taken her clothes off (though might just be able to become a good character as time goes on), and Rob Mayes’ Troy Quinn is a handsome, arrogant, young upstart who talks about others only to realize that person is standing right behind him. On the other side of the spectrum, however, is Tony Rice (Morris Chestnut) who is given the gift of both common sense and good dialogue.
The plots themselves are also familiar. In the pilot, Odum goes undercover as Lincoln Dittmann, a stuttering, divorced, cancer-ridden psycho who has linked up with a far right-wing domestic terrorist cell that plans on attacking federal buildings. The idea has a genuine real life feel…I would have said in 1995. The cold open ends with a bizarre grenade attack that apparently left nobody injured or dead, and I can’t help but wonder what the point was in having this happen if nothing was going to come of it. Regardless, any show that has Željko Ivanek guest-starring cannot be entirely bad. Ivanek plays the lead bad guy of the episode with just enough paranoia and fear to make him nearly three dimensional, and probably could have worked wonders if given more time and better material. The standout scene, however, belongs to Bean’s Odum who falls into Dittmann’s personality, accent, stutter and feeling, and is disturbed to find out later what had happened.
The second episode, “Chemistry” involves the kidnapping of a former Russian scientist living in the United States under an assumed identity; if that sounds familiar it’s only because The Americans did it last season. The episode hits all the notes you’d expect them to — shady Russian government, perverted Russian gangsters, mediocre accents, etc. The crisis isn’t resolved, however, so it’s going into episode 3 at the very least.
Legends isn’t an entire wash, despite what it may sound like. There are small moments, mostly character work from Bean and his estranged family, that rings true and is fascinating to see. Odum can really be an interesting, three-dimensional character because of his flaws. He’s a violent man, and though he’d never strike his estranged wife (Amber Vallenta) or son (Mason Cook), he clearly has a habit of breaking things in fits of anger. If the series can focus more on the mythology as well as the emotional toll this job takes on Odum and his family then Legends has a chance at being something better than the sum of its parts. There is no real-time format to stick by; this show can have a more decompressed story structure. There are plenty of plot-based shooters in entertainment, maybe Legends can do something more.