[This is a review of Legends season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
If you've seen 24 and you've loved the Bourne series, then TNT's Legends (which is, like 24, produced by Howard Gordon) may appeal to you at first glance, but after the first hour, there are questions about what positives this show brings to the table besides a few half-familiar beats from those two titans and the always welcome presence of Sean Bean, who plays secret agent man Martin Odum.
That's not to say that the show's central mystery (who is the real Martin Odum and what is the legend?) doesn't have the potential to make this a compelling watch down the road. It does, and this is also a very well cast show, but the burden falls to the writers to use this impressive roster of talent appropriately. Sean Bean can be a charming yet punishing presence, but we have to care about and get to know his character to buy in and stick with it.
We've seen the work-obsessed father routine a lot, but it's still a mostly solid device that is used to show us a character's dimension and give them a tie to the world outside of their incredibly demanding and important jobs.
The Strain does this better than most with its main character, Ephraim. Corey Stoll is tremendous in the human moments where he is dealing with the heartbreaking distance between him and his son and the fact that he has basically been replaced.
Despite the fact that that is a "B" story, it helps us establish a connection with the character. In Legends, Bean is nearly pulseless when dealing with his son and ex-wife (Amber Valetta) in a scene that seems to exist solely so that we can see that his son does exist and that Martin is so committed to his undercover work (which just took him away from his son for six months) that he even signs his child support payment in character.
It's that character (Lincoln Dittmann) that we see at the beginning of this episode. As Dittmann, Martin is infiltrating the Citizens Army of Virginia, a militia with domestic terrorism on their agenda. Bespectacled and nervous with a stutter to match, Lincoln's cover is nearly blown when the ATF raids the compound of the Citizens Army, scattering the group's leaders and taking Martin out of the field for a brief moment.
At home in LA, Bean is debriefed by his FBI Deep Cover Operations support team, but there is sure tension between Martin (who doesn't play by the rules, never checks in while under cover, and is the best agent that they've got... seriously) and Ali Larter's Crystal, his handler.
Is it all business with Crystal, though? Martin doesn't think so and reminds her of their brief romantic past, but she promptly downplays their fling as a mistake made by two consenting adults.
Rounding out the support team is Martin's DCO supervisor Nelson Gates (Steve Harris) and technicians Maggie Harris (Tina Majorino), Buchanon and Robbie. Would you like to know how a man with a smokey British accent can work as a US special agent? Majorino explains that while she and Martin were both Air Force brats growing up, her "father was never stationed overseas," so she "didn't get a cool accent out of the deal".
Majorino's character isn't given a lot to do in the pilot, but as Martin fills the team in on the backstory that he created for Lincoln before going back out into the field, it's really interesting to see how her character and the other agents seamlessly create the life story that Martin is spinning with fake documents and backdated extremist blog posts.
It's also interesting to watch Martin become Lincoln as he talks to his colleagues, going so far as to unintentionally slip into that character's voice - a disturbing sight that prompts Crystal to send Martin home before he goes to Chicago to rendezvous with The Citizens Army of Virginia and the group's leader, The Founding Father.
Before leaving for his latest mission, though, Martin spots and confronts the stranger that has been following him. A man who tries to inject doubt into what Martin perceives to be real about himself.
"You don't know where your life begins and where your legend ends," he says. "You really think you're Martin Odum? There is no Martin Odum. He's a legend. Everything about him is fake."
Then he tells Martin to trust no one - advice that he immediately disregards when he visits Robbie at his home to pass him the surveillance footage and ask him to get an ID of the stranger off-book. Predictably, this doesn't work out very well for Robbie, who was working really trying to bring his cholesterol down.
Once in Chicago with his support team in tow, Martin is seemingly refocused on the mission at hand - stopping the Citizen's Army from blowing up a meeting of global leaders. Before he can thwart the militia's plan, though, he has to go to a strip club to meet with The Founding Father (Zeljko Ivanek), though we later find out that he is indisposed, torturing Martin's informant (Brad William Henke) to find out if Lincoln Dittmann is for real or not.
After learning that the CI is in danger and that Martin's secret identity could be compromised, Crystal snaps into action, leaving her position to infiltrate the strip club as a stripper so that she can relay the news about the CI to Martin/Lincoln.
How will she pass this news to Martin/Lincoln while he's surrounded by militia guards? Well, naturally, she has to take him into a private room for what feels like a gratuitous (but not obscenely so) lap dance at Martin's urging, since there are cameras that could be monitored for any irregular behavior between the two. Cameras that Martin later reveals to be a smoke detector before the Citizen's Army goons burst in to tell him that it is time to go... to the parking lot, to get shot. A lot of that is in the subtext of that exchange, but soon, Martin is on his knees about to die.
A bit of quick thinking and fast typing on the part of the DCO agents gets Martin (and Crystal) out of trouble and back into the good graces of The Founding Father, which allows Martin a chance to eventually save the day with throat punches, the assistance of a car window and a bit of self-destructive heroism. At the end, though, Martin doesn't seem capable of celebrating his glory, instead retreating to process the stranger's words about his identity.
In that moment, Martin is no longer forced to wear the legend that is Lincoln Dittmann, but is he wearing a false mask as Martin Odum?
After finding Bobby's body, Martin goes to confront the Stranger, but he, too, is killed - by a mysterious woman on a subway platform. In the end, it's clear that Martin will be locked into solving this particular mystery throughout the season, but will we be? In the trope-heavy pilot, it's not just hard to care about Martin, it's hard to like him. He's a bit of a jerk to his kid and to Crystal, and absent any virtues besides the fact that he's on the side of the good guys.
Too many shows go for the overarching mystery without remembering that television isn't a flipbook. The point isn't merely to reach the end, it's also about the journey. And if we aren't allowed to feel a connection to Martin and the things that he cares about (assuming that he cares about things besides his job), then what do we care if he loses himself?
The producers will have to give us more about Martin, his family and his team to make us care; but beyond that, we also want to see how Martin process the information that his life may be a lie. Is he going to panic, or will he methodically work through this mystery while living under cover out in the open? Until we know more, the kindest grade for this show may be incomplete.
Legends airs Wednesdays @9pm on TNT.