Watching Sean Bean in his new TNT series, “Legends,” is like watching Michael Phelps in a kiddie pool.
Now 55, the British actor has a craggy, weathered face that speaks of decades of hard living. His eyes are world-weary and wise, both qualities that lent gravity and warmth to his unforgettable turn as Ned Stark on “Game of Thrones.” Bean doesn’t say very much in “Legends,” speaking volumes instead with his reticent facial expressions, so when he does talk, in his quiet bass voice, you listen. He brings understated gravity and authenticity to the show.
Bean plays Martin Odum, a brilliant agent for the FBI’s Deep Cover Operations (DCO). Martin treats his undercover identities as a serious actor might treat his roles. He creates elaborate backstories for each of his characters, along with distinctive physical traits and speech patterns. He submerges himself so deeply in his performances that sometimes, it seems, he’s on the verge of losing himself, having already lost his marriage to his gonzo work habits. When we meet Martin in the premiere, Wednesday night at 9, he is coming off a six-month stint undercover and off the FBI grid in a domestic terror group, and he barely remembers his name.
The DCO director, Nelson Gates (Steve Harris), is aware that Martin is teetering psychologically from the intensity of his work, unclear about where his constructed identities — his “legends” — begin and end. But Nelson keeps him on the job because, as he says, Martin is the “most naturally gifted deep-cover operative that we’ve got . . . maybe we’ve ever had.”
Bean plays Martin with great relish. He takes us in and out of the undercover characters, and it’s like watching a master class in acting. Martin’s story could easily be the story of an actor who gets lost in his work, who sacrifices the center of his being for a life on the road giving pieces of himself to audiences. If “Legends,” which is based on a novel by Robert Littell, were written as a sustained character study, with the plotlines positioned as extensions of Martin’s inner journey, the show could have been a fascinating dissection of self and Bean’s performance could have been tied to something expansive.
But “Legends” is knee-deep at best, relying on feeble plots of the week and high-tech wizardry that borders on the unintentionally comic. The supporting cast is as shallow as Bean is deep, particularly Ali Larter as team leader Crystal McGuire. The writers of the show, one of whose executive producers is Howard Gordon of “24” and “Homeland,” actually force a scene into the premiere that has Crystal jumping into the character of a lap dancer at a strip club to help Martin — and, more obviously, to give the show a bit of sexiness. It’s just too silly. We are supposed to believe that Crystal and Martin once had a brief fling, and that they may be heading toward another, but they have no chemistry. He’s soulful and troubled, she’s an import from some failed network cop pilot or other.
There’s a plot twist in the premiere that I won’t spoil, that teases an ongoing mythology designed to add more layers of mystery to Martin and his turmoil. But I’m thinking you may not want to be diving headlong into this one.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.