If you want to understand the eclecticism of modern American television, you need look no further than Thursday.
The premieres of CW's "DC's Legends of Tomorrow" and BBC America's "London Spy" mark opposite ends of a landscape grown so vast it can now comfortably accommodate a clunky but occasionally charming continuation of a comic-book franchise and a seductively fey prose poem of a British spy drama.
At first glance, the two shows are as different as chalk and cheese (guess which one's the chalk?) but both bear traces of this era's distinctly fertile soil. Each pits humanity against tyranny, each deals with the influence of the past on the future and each employs a super team to figure it all out — action heroes in "Legends," the dazzling combination of Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling in "Spy."
The shows also earn a one-degree-of-separation status courtesy of Arthur Darvill, best known in the U.S. for work done on BBC America as Rory Williams, one of the Eleventh Doctor's companions in "Doctor Who."
This also makes his appearance as Rip Hunter in "Legends" funny and jarring for "Doctor Who" fans who we can only assume the CW is courting.
Like the DC comics character of the same name, Rip is a Time Master (as opposed to Time Lord) who needs a team of superheroes to prevent the destruction of Earth by an evil mastermind.
Created by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim, the team behind "Green Arrow" and "The Flash," "Legends" is to the DC universe what "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is to Marvel's.
The "Legends" in question include the Atom (Brandon Routh), White (nee Black) Canary (Caity Lotz), Firestorm (Victor Garber and Franz Drameh), Hawkgirl (Ciara Renée) and Hawkman (Falk Hentschel), several of whom have appeared on "Green Arrow" and "The Flash." Though not quite the "Forgotten Heroes" of the comic series, they're not A-list either, which is one reason Rip can pull them together with minimal effort for the purposes of world-saving and high banter potential.
The plot rattles right along punctuated by dialogue that could have been lifted from "The Mummy" films — "That's your plan?" — and distinctly graphic novel scenarios; at times all that's missing are the graphic exclamations "Ker-pow" and "Kaboom."
Still, there is a family-hour charm among the many wooden performances and something to be said for the show's unapologetic comic book overtones. "DC's Legends of Tomorrow" wears its intentions, like its future tech, on its sleeve — you're either in for the ride or you're not, no character deconstruction or cinematic analysis required.
The same can mostly not be said about "London Spy," at least not with a straight face.
Moody, elliptical and exquisitely performed, "London Spy" is post-renaissance television. Creator Tom Rob Smith taunts and tantalizes viewers with a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't plot that unfolds in languid melancholy, except when it explodes with earth-shaking revelation.
Danny (Whishaw) is a warehouse worker and party boy who, while recovering from a night on the town, encounters Alex (Edward Holcroft), a passing runner/demi-god. Alex asks if Danny is all right; Danny answers that he is always all right. Their eyes meet, love blooms and Alex runs away.
But Smith is not interested in the traditional meet-cute and this London is far more "Luther" than "Love Actually." Danny wallows in his fug of unrealized potential and dirty dishes, propped up to a certain extent by his older "friend" Scottie (Broadbent), but he is clear-headed and obsessive enough to track his man down.
Alex, outwardly successful with a vaguely big job and an OCD-neat Power Flat, seems the more adult of the two, but Danny has the higher emotional IQ and the hard-earned wisdom of near self-annihilation. The two become lovers and if Danny senses that Alex is something more than a computer genius, he doesn't really care.
Until Alex is killed and all hell breaks loose, albeit in a fever-dreamy way.
With elements that evoke the death of Gareth Williams, an actual mathematician with ties to MI6, "London Spy" appears to take its sweet if unlikely love story through the well-traveled tunnels of British intelligence, among all the stalactites of code-breaking, treachery and fatal homophobia. But before you can say George Smiley, the tone swerves High Gothic (Rampling vaguely menacing in a creepy English manor) or street (sex toys, drugs, police). "Tinker Tailor" by way of "Jane Eyre" and maybe "Trainspotting."
The increasing ubiquity of Whishaw ("Spectre," "Suffragette," "The Danish Girl," "Paddington" and "The Hour" are just a few of his most recent credits) detracts not at all from the power of his performance. A rumpled pixie dream boy, Danny may slouch, sweat and swoon but he never surrenders. The world conspires more darkly than he ever imagined, but he is better equipped to face it than those who appear more in control.
To say that Broadbent is heartbreaking and Rampling an enigmatic marvel is to state the obvious; when the plot and tone go wandering, as they do with exasperating regularity, "London Spy" rests almost entirely on the astonishing ability of its cast.
Fortunately, these three could juggle seven spinning planets and a shoe if it were required to keep the story moving. Heartbreak amid the post-Cold War perils of MI6? That's gravy, that is.