Anyone who feels the urge, or has the need to embark on an expedition into the not-so-serious territory of serial TV, should learn some technical terms that will facilitate reading the map. Namely, the meaning, in this context, of the nouns “procedural” and “arc.”
A procedural has, as one can easily surmise, something to do with procedure. On TV it refers to a series in which every episode is a story of a procedure within a particular setting. In a series about lawyers, each episode tells the story of a court case, or several intertwined cases, dealt with by a group of lawyers within a particular firm in a specific city. In a series about police officers, FBI or CIA units, or medical doctors, it is about crimes averted, criminals or terrorists apprehended or killed, patients cured or departed. Case solved, end of episode. New episode, new cases.
The arc, on the other hand is what is supposed to hold all the consecutive procedures together. It is an imaginary curve that is supposedly what makes us watch a series week in and week out: our involvement with the “bigger” story than the sum of all cases (and fears). It may be our sympathy for the protagonists, or our interest in the subject matter – crime, law, medicine and sex (in whatever condition it is served up, sex being compulsory). Or there may be a more complex plot, which develops as the episodes accumulate, within one season or during several seasons, with a mandatory cliffhanger between the seasons.
Having set the stage – or rather the TV screen – allow me now to introduce you to a brand-new series. “Legends,” starring Sean Bean, which premiered on the TNT cable channel in the U.S. on August 13, and is gracing our screens weekly on Yes Action (and Yes VOD) – it began yesterday, October 2 – at 22.30 for 10 weeks.
Its pedigree sounds promising enough: It is produced by Howard Gordon of “Homeland” (fourth season coming to your screens soon) and “Tyrant” (renewed for a second season). It stars Sean Bean, a British actor with classical experience (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Royal Shakespeare Company), who is best known to world audiences for his roles in “The Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones.” The new series is based on a book by a veteran writer of thrillers and spy fiction, Robert Littell.
The “legends” in the title of the series and the book it is based on (whose subtitle is “A Novel of Dissimulation”) does not refer to the OED definition – “an unauthentic or non-historical story, esp. one handed down by tradition from early times and popularly regarded as historical” – but to the invented, but extensively documented, story of an agent working under deep cover. That’s what it is about: the character played by Bean, an FBI operative named Martin Odum, is endowed with an uncanny ability to morph into another character on his way to infiltrate shady operations (gangs, militias, terrorist cells), and maintain his cover come hell or high water.
In the first episode, Odum, divorced and with a son in his early teens, assumes the personality of Lawrence Dittmann, an unemployed, divorced, bitter construction worker who joins a militia in West Virginia to try and prevent a mega-terrorist event being planned by them. Twice in the first episode he is held at gunpoint, accused of being a cop or an agent, and only his quick wit and cold blood save his life. That, and a loyal and efficient FBI backup team who manage to “fake-back” and document online the “legend” he spins to his captors (who are checking the story online in real time).
In each episode of “Legends” Odum tackles different adversaries. Crystal, the comely blonde agent who runs the unit, sees Odum as a somewhat loose cannon, but is willing to put her body and her life on the line to save him from a fate worse than death. They had something going in the past, but by mutual consent have let bygones be bygones.
But... It turns out that Odum morphs into the legendary characters he portrays in the line of duty much too easily. That seems to be the arc that runs this series: it looks like the boundaries between the real life of the character Bean plays and the fictional lives he assumes start to blur, and it seems that he sometimes does not know for sure who he really is. Things get menacing when he encounters a hooded character – and trust me, it’s not a spoiler, it’s the premise – who instills in his already jumbled mind the notion that even the “Martin Odum” personality, purportedly “real,” is just another “legend.” If so, indeed, who concocts it and why? Ah, there’s the arc.
Sean Bean characters were killed off, some of them spectacularly, in at least 25 movies and series he participated in (his character in “Game of Thrones” was beheaded; Boromir in “The Lord of the Rings” was shot by arrows). So TNT promoted the series with a hashtag campaign: “Don’tkillSeanBean.” I think viewers’ fears can be assuaged on this count: This is an American TV series. He is the main character, traversing the arc, so to speak. He will live until the end of this season at least.
The technical terms I began with, although they are from TV-land, do seem apt for the life we live: made up of episodes, with the arc (us, that is), holding them together and endowing them with meaning. And the existential question of “what is my (real) arc” is what makes Odum, and us, run. The other question is what we are running from.
I think we’ll have to deal with that in the next episode. To be continued.