Last month at Comic-Con, TNT launched an ad campaign for its new spy thriller “Legends” that consisted of the hashtag #dontkillseanbean.
Technically, it is not a great sign when network executives think the main reason to watch a new show is the fact that its star is not going to die. But then the mortality rates have gotten pretty high in television of late, and it is Sean Bean.
Ever since he played Boromir, the only member of “The Lord of the Rings’” original Fellowship who did not live to see Sauron overthrown, Bean has become, in America anyway, a symbol of high-wattage and untimely death. His Ned Stark was beheaded in the first season of “Game of Thrones,” while in 2012’s “Missing,” his character croaked even before the action began; his role existed entirely in flashback.
Bean is clearly the main reason to watch “Legends,” the third Howard Gordon-produced venture to hit the flat screen this year. The 10-episode series, based on a book by Robert Littell and premiering Wednesday, has been constructed as a wide and solid if somewhat workmanlike platform for the British actor’s considerable talents.
In it, he plays one Martin Odum, an FBI agent with such a gift for deep cover that he often has a difficult time establishing where his “legend” ends and his real life begins. The undercover aspect obviously allows Bean to assume many different characters. Not the least of which is Martin, a man clearly troubled by his own internal scaffold of opposing forces. When the action opens, he has spent six months infiltrating a backwoods domestic terrorist group; not surprisingly, his job has already cost him his marriage and threatens his relationship with his young son.
If this sounds more than slightly familiar, it is. Most story lines dealing with deep cover explore the identity conundrum, and almost every series featuring a super-dedicated professional attaches a wife or husband who “can’t stand what the job is doing to you.” (My kingdom for a spouse who understands that when you marry a CIA agent/homicide detective/internationally famous heart surgeon you will be attending those parent-teacher conferences alone.)
Gordon and co-creators Jeffrey Nachmanoff and Mark Bomback also quickly inject the possibility that Martin himself is a legend; in the pilot he is stalked by a mysterious man who leaps out of corners to make seemingly paranoid claims about their shared past. (See also “Extant,” “Homeland” and the Jason Bourne franchise.)
But familiarity needn’t always breed contempt; if we have seen this essential narrative before, there’s a reason: It’s a good one. As Tatiana Maslany continues to prove on “Orphan Black,” there is nothing more astonishing than watching an actor practice his or her craft on multiple levels. Not everyone can do it, as we learn each and every television season, but Bean most certainly can. Whether his cases will keep up with his characters remains to be seen.
The pilot of a big-concept show is often an expositional chore, and “Legends” has more To Dos to check off than most. Although Martin is patently lone-wolf, he is a member of a task force (who isn’t these days?), and they must be introduced: Crystal McGuire (“Hero’s” Ali Larter) as his persistently irritated handler and, regrettably, former lover; Tony Rice (Morris Chestnut), a canny fellow agent; Maggie (Tina Majorino), the rookie; and Nelson Gates (Steve Harris), the wise task force director who understands that Martin’s greatest weakness is his greatest strength.
There’s also the ex-wife, played in frowning high dudgeon by Amber Valletta, and the forgiving and truly charming son, Aiden (Mason Cook.)
The supporting players all circle Martin like so many magician’s assistants while he makes his miraculous transformation; as time goes on, one hopes that some will emerge as more than transition providers and human scenery (with any luck, Majorino’s Maggie will become Martin’s Chloe à la “24"). Still, in this age of increasingly artsy-fartsy television, there is something refreshing about a show that is content with putting on a show. Although it dabbles in larger issues, “Legends” doesn’t pretend to be more than it is: an undercover procedural. And with Bean as its self-doubting spy and master of disguise, that is more than enough.
As long as, you know, they don’t kill him. Because I’m fairly sure a hashtag ad campaign constitutes a binding contract these days.