Review: In “Legends Of Tomorrow”, the seams burst on the small-screen DC universe

I love pizza. And burritos. And ice cream. And barbeque pulled pork. But I wouldn’t love them altogether on the same plate: The individual flavors would combat and/or contradict one another, turning something that’s individually delicious essentially inedible.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Figured as much.

The seams have been somewhat showing in The CW’s DC Comics’ based universe for a while now, but they completely burst with “Legends Of Tomorrow,” premiering January 21. In efforts to set up this show, current seasons of “The Flash” and “Arrow” have intermittently struggled to tell their own stories while simultaneously propping up this team-up spin-off. And yet, the result isn’t a streamlining of ancillary characters but an eight-person pile-up posing as a television show. Rather than giving something for everyone, “Legends of Tomorrow” doesn’t give nearly enough to anyone.

The biggest problem is narrative structure: “Legends” can’t decide who the lead of this show is, so it makes all of the characters the lead. It’s a predictable disaster: Even though new character Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) assembles the rag-tag group in order to face immortal villain Vandal Savage throughout time, he’s essentially a babysitter for eight characters in search of an alpha.

Legends-of-Tomorrow-Promo-Image-DC-CW-2016lgnNow, ensemble shows can and often are great. But this isn’t an ensemble! Contrast this with shows like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” or “Lost,” programs that drew strength from a large and varied cast. But no one confused Giles or Sun as the leads of those shows. That didn’t make them less important, but did help define their role in the context of the whole. There’s no “whole” here in “Legends”, except a whole lot of messiness.

Ironically, even though it feels like Greg Berlanti and company have been setting this show up since I was in my teens, everything in the two-part premiere feels overrushed and underexplained. We’ve met all of the characters Hunter brings into the fold before, but there’s an incredible amount of hand-waving and half-baked motivation to get them into Hunter’s merry band. The whole endeavor feels like a corporate mandate rather than a logical extension of the stories told within this universe to this point. And sure, there are far worse reasons to create a show, and there’s something inherently fun about a supergroup of heroes (especially second- and third-tier ones such as this, akin to the Suicide Squad, in which actual stakes could be introduced). Everything on paper makes sense. Everything in execution runs into timey-wimey problems almost instantaneously.

As for the time-travel aspect of the show, it’s too early to see how well “Legends” will build individual worlds depending on what time period it sends its heroes. In the two-part premiere, only one such period exists, and the production is more akin to “Sliders” than “Doctor Who.” To be fair, a lot of the money goes into fight choreography and super-powered special effects, both of which look unsurprisingly great given the pedigree of those involved. More problematic is the way the show stumbles out of the gate in dealing with time travel paradoxes. There’s a damn good reason most time travel stories fail, especially in long-form narrative such as television. But putting aside any universe-shattering causality, “Legends” forces some theoretically brilliant characters to make incredibly stupid choices for the sheer sake of creating tension. It sells those characters short and makes the audience doubt how smart they really are.

So what’s left? Some pretty good actors struggling for narrative oxygen. I’ve enjoyed the work of Brandon Routh, Caity Lotz, Victor Garber, and Wentworth Miller in this universe to date. And sure, there’s some pleasure to be found in the sheer novelty of watching The Atom and Captain Cold barb with one another. But can this cast of characters ever gel into an ensemble? Without a radical rework of the inherent character architecture, I say no. “Firefly” worked right out of the gate with a similarly-sized cast because it had a caste system built into its DNA. There was a clear organizational chart you could assemble, and even if Wash wasn’t atop it, you could still claim him as a favorite and watch him periodically step into the primary slot. Here? Everyone onscreen is rasslin’ for the throne, and it’s exhausting.

Now, if that attempt to claim the DC version of the Iron Throne were built into the narrative, I might not have a problem with it. However, none of the struggles I’ve describes are baked into its fiction. It’s simply a byproduct of a bloated show that took bits and pieces from its universe and shoved them together due to convenience rather than purpose. By the end of the two-hour premiere, the show sets up the traditional “long-term baddie, short-term mission-of-the-week” structure of its small-screen predecessors. But while that’s probably smart (a show in which every week they fail to kill Vandal Savage would be pretty boring pretty quickly), it also shows just how much this show is about using existing parts rather than truly building something new. That’s a shame, as “Arrow” and “The Flash” at their heights provided pulpy thrills and emotional payoffs in equal measures. By contrast, “Legends Of Tomorrow” isn’t serving audiences so much as the bottom lines of those funding it.