TNT is billing the second season of “Legends” as having been “completely re-imagined,” and for once, that’s not just hyperbole. Having apparently recognized that Sean Bean was the program’s singular asset, the producers have developed a new, more ambitious structure that proceeds along parallel tracks, featuring two stories, one set in present-day London and the other unfolding 15 years earlier. Watching season one will help, but isn’t a prerequisite, and the whole enterprise suddenly has the darker feel of a premium cable drama, if not-fully-realized one, as opposed to a rather tepid procedural with Bean as the identity-shifting spook.
Adapted from a book, “Legends” derived its title from Bean’s central character, Martin Odum, an FBI agent who assumed different undercover identities while wrestling with uncomfortable questions about his past. Season one ended with Martin on the run for a murder he didn’t commit, while still unsure of his own history. “Lies and bull—t; that’s what my whole life’s become,” he mutters in the opening episode.
Yet that is, literally, just half the story, as the narrative, a bit like season one of “True Detective,” regularly flashes back to Prague 15 years ago. In that time frame, Bean is playing a ruthless Russian gangster named Dmitry Petrovich, whose activities have caught the attention of a young FBI agent (Steve Kazee), receiving reluctant assistance from a Czech cop (Winter Ave Zoli). Those characters’ stories also pick up again in the present day, slowly unspooling how their original investigation developed, while Odum’s suddenly public profile rekindles the earlier case.
Developed by the very busy Howard Gordon, and overseen by Ken Biller, who wrote the premiere, “Legends” now hews much more closely to the former’s “Homeland,” including an ongoing terrorism arc involving a teenage girl from Martin’s (or whoever he is) past. Although there are some holdovers – including a recurring role for Morris Chestnut, who subsequently moved on to a starring gig in Fox’s “Rosewood” – viewers are pretty quickly drawn into the two-tiered plot, in a manner that goes beyond just admiring Bean’s verbal calisthenics as he flits from one accent to the next.
While seeing Bean in one piece, his multiple personalities notwithstanding, is welcome (perhaps especially for “Game of Thrones” fans), the much-improved first three episodes don’t fully demonstrate whether this notion of completely retooling a show on the fly was worth the effort, or, more pragmatically, if TNT can entice viewers to take a second bite of the apple. That said, the gambit reinforces a recent trend in cable, where renewing low-rated shows and tinkering with them (see HBO’s “The Leftovers” and AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” as case studies) – thus seeking to leverage whatever equity exists in the concepts – is deemed preferable to starting from scratch.
In a sense, TNT is undergoing its own search for identity, wanting to be more edgy and less of a meat-and-potatoes platform in its dramatic profile. “Legends” might not provide a quick fix, or yield anything explosive in terms of a ratings surge (if anything, it could be narrower in its appeal, based on the network’s track record). But as a clue regarding where this Turner channel is heading, it’s not a bad sign.