Three episodes is supposed to be the minimum for taking the measure of a new TV show. But even after only one installment it’s clear that the new espionage series “Legends” (TNT) will be worth keeping track of. Not least because Sean Bean, shockingly rendered headless in the first season of “Game of Thrones,” may be the strongest incarnation yet of the alienated espionage prodigy that has become the trademark of the show’s auteur showrunner, “24”-veteran Howard Gordon.
Like Claire Danes’ bipolar Carrie Mathison on Gordon’s “Homeland,” Bean’s maddeningly erratic deep cover FBI agent Martin Odum (if that is his name) has internalized the confused identifies and conflicting loyalties of his profession to the point that his grasp on reality may be slipping. Once embedded, he settles so deeply into the life of the conspirator he’s portraying that he forgets to call home or to check in with his handlers.
We can tell that something’s up when he mistakenly endorses an alimony check with the name of his current false identity. A few scenes later, in a debriefing session, Odum’s accent and body language shift and his account glides from the third person into the first, as his current “legend” bleeds through, the stuttering White Supremacist bomber he’s become in order to infiltrate a home grown terrorist cell. Odum’s colleagues are thoroughly creeped out, and we are, too.
There have been quite a grew crime stories over years about undercover cops who begin to identify with the miscreants they’re supposed to be observing. Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” is a prime example. But “Legends,” freely adapted from Robert Littell’s acclaimed 2006 bestseller, goes deeper than the usual generic issues of loyalty and betrayal, into the self-deceptions of a troubled man who seems to be seeking refuge in his false personalities, digging mental spider holes and pulling them in after him. (“Legend’s” secret antecedents may include melodramas about actors consumed by their roles, such as George Cukor’s “A Double Life,” or the storyteller’s equivalent in Stephen King’s “The Dark Half,” in which a novelist’s vicious fictional creation takes on a life of his own.)
As one would expect from the creator of “Homeland,” the scenes of the FBI operatives at work are vividly detailed. And the set piece scenes of Odum on the job with his target group of feral racist sidewinders are frightening in a more than mechanical, plotted way, because the cruelty on display is so authentic.
There’s a early scene early on that’s bound to rub some of my favorite TV critics the wrong way, an eye-roller in which it is announced that Odum’s first meeting with the head terrorist (Zeljko Ivanek) is to occur at a strip club for no apparent reason. As a pretext of showing more skin this one, after all, was old hat before “The Sopranos” went off the air. Gordon and company make use of the sleazy setting in a way that’s actually fairly clever, but still, this lowest common denominator move is disappointing in a show that’s ostensibly so grim and serious.
The emotional center of “Legends,” however, is Odum’s dawning sense of his own disintegration, and if any element in the pilot episode is truly worrying it’s the introduction of what could turn out to be a standard government conspiracy plot — announced by a blatantly generic lurking stranger in a hoodie. In addition to being a color spy story “Legends” could be resonant psychological drama. “Who am I?” is a loaded question everyone has asked. Palming off Odum’s torment as a side effect of a brainwashing scheme would be a serious letdown in a show that has so much potential for gimmick-free psychological insight.