Legends of Television

Legends of Tomorrow is one of the most absurd, progressive, genre-bending shows going. In addition to pop-culture referential, anti-Nazi, time traveling fun, it gives us the emotional tools of the dozen therapy appointments we can’t afford or actively avoid. (As does Elementary with different tools . . . but that’s another blog post.) 

We might want to rethink that whole ‘we screw up things for the better’ motto.” – Zari Tomaz

Legends has gone from an overwrought spinoff of a lesser-known Batman knockoff, to being not only the best show in the “Arrowverse” but one of the best on TV. All this for a show which very well could be generated by writers reaching into hats labelled “historical event” “ridiculous plot device” and “anthropomorphised child’s toys,” and writing fanfiction around the resulting random paper slips.

To produce these high concepts at maximum bang for production’s buck, they use lots of forests (for cheap location) and costumes sourced from other shows, including matching disco outfits, puritanical dresses, and futuristic bodysuits, oh my!

Like Buffy and Xena and Torchwood and many other zombie/vampire/fantasy/super queer/time-travel/etc shows before it, Legends showcases plenty of supernatural / vamping / unicorn baddies, but generally follows the ages-old ‘humans are the real monsters’ formula. Also like those shows, this actually frees them explore the furthest ranges of the human condition, moralising to degrees unfathomable from more ‘straightforward’ shows, including other superhero shows in their immediate universe.

What other show can devote an entire episode to preventing a demonic gorilla killing a teenaged Barak Obama, or set an existential crisis in a purgatorial IKEA (so: a red IKEA), or having a minor character constantly refer to that time “a unicorn ate my nipple”? Maybe Doctor Who or The Good Place. That’s it.

That is fantastic company, to be sure. But what makes Legends one of the best shows isn’t merely its absurdist, pop-culture-reference-heavy, fourth-wall-shattering delightfulness. It tackles history better than most US schools, dishes out philosophy and life advice head-on, an openly deals with heavy emotions like grief and heartbreak, estrangement, free will versus determinism, loss of loved ones, toxic masculinity, and learning from your mistakes. It makes a queer woman the Fearless Leader, and a tough guy the romance novelist. It celebrates love both friendly and romantic, family both biological and found, co-workers and casual sex, all with plenty of wisecracks but without irony. Its constantly revolving ensemble features characters from traditional billionaire playboys in techsuits to Zambesi women with superpowers. And sometimes people in cat, puppet, or piglet form.

I don’t think that anger ever goes away. That’s ok. You just can’t hold it in all the time.” – Captain Sara Lance

But most importantly in current tough times, it handles darkness with lightness, grace, and humour. It never shies from examining how LGBTQ+ people and people of colour are discriminated against in most timelines, without sensationalising it. It believes the best in people while acknowledging monsters, historic and contemporary. It exemplifies how to deal with anger, depression, and despair, acknowledging how our personalities may mean we also deal with them differently, and that’s OK. Facing demons together, loving our friends fiercely, admitting when we are wrong, working to be better: that’s what matters.

When you get a bunch of broken pieces, and you put them all together the right way, they make something new, and suddenly, they don’t feel so broken anymore.” – Jefferson “Jax” Jackson

Season Four got a lot of mileage pairing different characters off and letting them bounce off each other, which is good for scheduling and production costs as well as effective storytelling. Whether it’s Ava and Nate exchanging hair tips, Mick and Constantine as The Odd Couple, or Sara and Mick bonding over their love of beer and bashing Nazis, anything goes, and almost all of it works.

Legends does a good job of presenting its characters as fallible, setting up scenarios where the audience gets to hear arguments and then see the consequences play out. Often no character is wholly in the right; Captain Lance generally comes closest, and acknowledges her wrongs when she’s off the mark – that’s why she’s captain. While some episodes set up clear moral stakes and asks “how the heck can our heroes achieve their goals and triumph over evil?” more and more are introducing moral and/or historical conundrums, and letting the characters each have their unique points of view be informed by their individual backgrounds, experiences, and wildly different time periods.

High risk, high reward. Legends has shed its origins and gone all-in on its unique style and stories, from ridiculous concepts to historical warnings to slapstick and double entendres, to tales centering marginalised folk. If it doesn’t always nail everything, just wait a moment, because the next scene will pull off something no other show on TV could even attempt, and that’s well worth watching.

Your salary is the . . . friendships you make along the way.” – Nate Heywood

Because I work in film and television, I’m particularly interested in the behind-the-scenes. How do shows work around filming Very Special Episodes (this year Legends sat out the scheduling and workload nightmare that is the Arrowverse crossover event), how do producers handle conflict or harassment, what do the writers talk about at panels, that sort of thing. You can’t say you’re creating TV and movies to make the world better and then mistreat your cast and crew. Which is why I was particularly interested seeing Nick Zano’s post about his recent time off.The amount of rewriting, rescheduling, overtime, and logistics that took would be massive, and the show made it happen without blinking.

Maybe I’m reading into it, maybe my idealistic edges are showing, but that is what you are meant to do, film set and high pressure or no. You’re meant to stand up for members of your team, you’re meant to love them like family for better and worse, you’re meant to move heaven and earth when they need help mentally, physically, or emotionally. You’re meant to make concessions, and grow together.

I know, of course, the greatest TV and movies can be and are made in terrible circumstances, by horrible people, with cast and crew who outright hate each other, in situations where harassment and worse are rampant. Platoon, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Stranger Things, Kramer vs. Kramer, etc. It’s not just current events which are disheartening, it’s reading about how the industry, from Last Tango in Paris to The Predator, can chew people up and spit them out to the sound of raucous applause. Amidst all that, I still really want to believe we can still do it right. It’s a melodramatic refrain, which makes it no less true: in 2019, I NEED to believe that.

Legends wears its heart on its sleeve, candidly writing about how hard it can be to merely try to be a good person. Its core is a group of incredibly different people of all ages and backgrounds and time periods coming together to save the universe and each other. In the fight between Possibly Justified Anger and Cynicism versus Relentless Hope In The Goodness Of Others, Legends acknowledges reality is tough, but stands for fairness and love with endless hope.

It turns out at the end of the day, love is worth the risk. None of us can do this alone.” – Zari Tomaz

Stray Observations

  • You could subtitle the last three seasons as The Adventures of Sara Lance Scoffing at Men Who Underestimate Her
  • Monster movie in Toyko? So good. Using the reflection in the camera lens? TOO GODDAMN GOOD (while also being cheaper the VFX team, and an homage to movies like The Host). Also, the dialogue acknowledges how Toyko’s monsters were born of an artistic response to the atomic bomb.
  • How do they manage to have so many very, very different plots in one episode . . . and make it work. We have Gary, we have Ava and Nate, and we have the Main Anachronism story, but there are stories WITHIN that story. And then they start crossing them over!
  • This is a show which not only makes a lost nipple a running joke, it gives it dramatic heft. I’m still in awe.
  • Here, have a bonus picture just because this outfit was so good, putting Charlie in it so convoluted yet delightful, and Mick picking out the glasses was so perfect.

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