This fall, “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” star Dominic Purcell offered a withering indictment of the first season in an Instagram post — namely, that it “sucked.” This was not an uncommon opinion of the series when it initially launched in 2016. But it meant something coming from Purcell, who still plays Mick Rory on what has become, in Season 4, the most flat-out enjoyable show on television.
However, Purcell clarified that while the first season of the time travel adventure show “was a dud” and he “wanted off it,” the second season was “a genius master stroke” by the writers, who realized they could “have fun with it.”
Much like Purcell, fans have come to embrace the beautiful strangeness of “Legends.” It’s just one of the 14 series on which uber-producer Greg Berlanti currently has his name, but the only one that brings together a revolving door of lower-tier characters drawn from DC Comics and seemingly random genre elements for some pure goofy fun. While the series technically belongs to the same universe as “Arrow,” “The Flash,” and “Supergirl,” it stands out from all those shows simply because, since the end of Season 1, everything has gone nuts.
This year, “Legends” will be sitting out the annual high-profile crossover that brings together the rest of the DC/CW universe — instead, “we will essentially be crossing over with ourselves,” according to showrunner Keto Shimizu. Star Caity Lotz told TV Line that it’s going to be “insane” — which is legitimately saying something with this series, which has been insane from the outset.
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers up to “Legends of Tomorrow” Season 4, Episode 1, “The Virgin Gary.”]
On “Legends of Tomorrow,” an episode about what happens when Helen of Troy gets accidentally transported to 1930s Hollywood just isn’t crazy enough, so on top of that, two characters also swap brains and one of them ends up hitting on Hedy Lamarr. An episode-long tribute to Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” also made time to recreate the “Good Morning” tap number from “Singin’ In the Rain.” After a major character dies in Season 3, the rest of the team goes through grief therapy with a puppet. (Oh, and the “therapist” is a doppelgänger version of a former teammate of theirs from an alternate Earth.) It all makes exactly the right amount of sense.
“Legends of Tomorrow” cast the two stars of Fox’s “Prison Break” as series regulars, and then had Wentworth Miller’s character say, “This isn’t my first prison break” in an episode. A giant gorilla travels back in time to kill a young Barack Obama, and it’s not even the most bizarre element of that episode, entitled “Guest Starring John Noble as Himself,” which does in fact feature “Lord of the Rings” star John Noble as himself. And any attempt to explain what happens in the Season 3 finale is basically impossible, except to note that the GIFs involved are flat-out bonkers.
While Purcell may not have loved his time on the show initially, the series had an anarchist bent from the beginning, bringing together an eclectic mix of characters that included criminals, assassins, a science professor, and two people reincarnated from Egyptian times who had hawk powers. But Hawkman and Hawkgirl weren’t that fun, in the long run, and were written off the show at the end of Season 1, as part of the show’s ongoing belief in reinvention. As producer Phil Klemmer said at the beginning of Season 3 during the Television Critics Association press tour, “every season was meant to feel like a fresh, crazy start.”
This has meant an ongoing commitment to introducing new elements as the show continues, with Season 4 incorporating the character of wizard John Constantine (Matt Ryan, reprising his role from the canceled NBC series after previous appearances on both “Legends” and “Arrow”) as a more regular presence. This comes as the show also brings in other weird curveballs, which the show uses as a chance to acknowledge with a cheeky aside to an iconic CW series: “People do like the supernatural,” Ray (Brandon Routh) observes.
Dean Buscher/The CW
Season 4, which premiered Monday, brought the gang to Woodstock, introduced a murderous unicorn, and cast Biff from “Back to the Future” as Nate’s (Nick Zano) dad. It also continued the show’s lovely commitment to exploring these characters and their lives, which remain authentic despite the backdrop of time travel and various other strangeness.
The show succeeds not only because the writers are having a crazy amount of fun writing it — it’s that they’re not having fun for fun’s sake, and that this never compromises an affection for “Legend’s” unique ensemble, which relishes its characters for their quirks. It’s also openly progressive: Like the rest of the DC/CW universe, the show features LGBT characters, but in particular here bisexuality — male and female — is as ingrained in the fabric of the universe as the characters’ superpowers.
To praise “Legends” for its craziness is not to imply that it shouldn’t be taken seriously, but instead to suggest that a show can take wild swings with its plots while also still delivering empathetic storytelling that keeps viewers engaged. This is because far too often, joy is undervalued, to such a degree that it might take a few episodes of “Legends” to recognize just what’s happening — a show being made by people who hope you enjoy watching it as much as they enjoy making it.
Plenty of other comic book-inspired shows have the market cornered on the grim and gritty approach (even if those in the Netflix/Marvel universe might be on the brink of vanishing right now). Meanwhile, “Legends” is worth relishing, for everything it’s achieved and everything it might bring us in the future.
“DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on The CW.