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Legends didn’t exactly catch fire when it premiered in 2014. The espionage drama, from powerhouse executive producer Howard Gordon, boasted an enviable star in Game of Thrones graduate Sean Bean — but ratings were modest and the procedural nature wasn’t in line with TNT’s priorities.
So now, like the cable network under exec Kevin Reilly, Legends is hitting the reset button. The second season finds the spy thriller stripped of many elements outside the central mystery of Bean’s character’s identity, enlisting a mostly new cast and ditching the case-of-the-week mentality shackled to the initial run. There’s also new blood behind the scenes. Veteran TV scribe Ken Biller (Perception, Smallville, Star Trek: Voyager) boarded as the showrunner earlier this year. His first order of business? Pitching it as a new show.
Biller spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about changing the course of the series, while not alienating returning viewers, and rebuilding it around the popular lead actor — who’s previously been notorious for seeing his characters killed off in film and TV. He also sounded off on whether or not show’s biggest lingering question will be answered in these next episodes.
You came on board a moving train. Where do you start?
The train kind of stopped after season one, and there was a desire to reimagine the show. I really started from scratch in a way. Basically what they said to me was, “We love Sean Bean, we love Howard Gordon and we’re interested with this source material — but we thought that the show in the first season was too traditional, too case-of-the-week.” I hit upon a notion of how to tell the show in a more modern, novelistic, serialized way, and I pitched that approach to the studio and the network. They really liked it. I pitched it to Sean, and Sean loved it. Once he was on board, with it, we hired a whole new cast with the exception of Morris Chestnut. It didn’t have anything to do with not liking any of the actors from the first season, but because of the new approach, the new storyline set in new locations, we started casting all of the new roles. So basically the first order of business, as it always is really, is the script.
Morris returns for only some of this season. Did you have to lose him because of his commitment to Rosewood?
He had gotten his own show while I was tasked with reimagining the show and making it very different. There were still millions of people who watched and enjoyed the first season, so I felt that there was a responsibility, which was also a huge challenge, to reset the show while honoring the mythology that had been created. We constructed a storyline for Morris that would allow him to help us connect the show for fans from the first season and that we could play out over the course of three episodes.
What relationship does the show have to its source material at this point?
I didn’t use it really in terms of plot because it’s very, very specific. Tonally it was quite a bit different from the series, but I used that as some inspiration. The book is nonlinear. The book jumps around in time, depicts the character in different personae at different periods in his life.
How open were all parties, the studio and network, to moving production abroad the way you did?
Once I demonstrated to them that it could be done economically, they were all for it. They thought that it was a really good change for the show. More importantly they understood and supported the fact that it worked for the story. We didn’t just say, “Oh, let’s go shoot in Europe.” I took it as a jumping off point, at the end of season one, Martin Odum discovers that he may have been a MI6 agent [in the U.K.].
The show has an interesting history, premiering under a different network regime. How is this season a better fit to the new TNT?
It’s interesting. I certainly can’t speak for Kevin. But I think when he and Sarah Aubrey came to the network they had a desire, maybe even a mandate to try to change the identity of the network and to try to program it with edgier cable fare, to be more of a direct competitor with FX and some of the others.
Is there a difference from when you worked at the network previously?
I think they asked me to do for this one show is what they were trying to do for the network in general. I produced a show for years for TNT called Perception. I’m very proud of that, and I think it was a very character-based show — but it was very much a procedural that was on-brand for the network when they told mostly murder mysteries every week. We did have a serialized element, and though the network supported us serializing the show, they really wanted to have storylines that closed off at the end of every episode.
This season tells a non-linear story, which has become very popular in TV. Did you draw inspiration from any other shows to go there before?
I think Lost opened the door for storytellers because you know they had this gigantic story of people stranded on an island. You can’t just tell the story of them trying to get off, that’d be Gilligan’s Island, but they’re really interesting characters so they went back in time to tell the audience — particularly in that first season. And they set up interesting mysteries about those characters by jumping back in time. That, to me, was really groundbreaking. I’d like to think that on Legends we do it differently. We’re not doing flashbacks, you know, the camera never pushes in on someone and suddenly he goes into a memory of what his life was. I think the characters are really engaging, so I think the audience really will pay attention and stay engaged. I certainly hope that they will.
How much closure to the mystery of Sean’s character’s identity do you want the audience to get this season?
One thing that I wanted to do this season that I thought I really owed the audience is that question of “Who is Martin Odum?” Identity is the main theme of the show. If the audience watches season two of Legends, when they get to the last episode, they will be told who Martin Odum really is. I thought it was important to not just keep teasing the audience and give them the real answers. The reward for the audience of just paying attention and sticking with it is they’re going to get a lot of answers.
Howard Gordon has a pretty full dance card these days. How involved was he in reshaping the show?
He was involved with getting me on board and he was a great resource in terms of talking to me about what went on during the development of the show and how we could maybe take a different approach. Before I started with my writing staff, Howard and I came up with this big architecture of what this show should be. He wasn’t involved in the day-to-day of breaking stories, because he’s been working full time on Tyrant, but he was a great resource. He’s read all the scripts, watched all the cuts and he’s been giving feedback. He’s been very respectful of in terms of letting me pursue my vision for the show.
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