Roush Review: London Spy Dazzles, DC's Legends of Tomorrow Frazzles, and Baskets Fizzles

Matt Roush
London Spy
Ed Miller/BBC America

London Spy: Quantum of Solace

It's a safe bet you've never seen a sex-pionage yarn quite like BBC America's wildly original and deeply moving London Spy, from novelist Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). A tragic love story masquerading as a spy thriller, this five-part drama is a terrific tour de force for Ben Whishaw (Spectre, Broadway's upcoming The Crucible revival) as Danny, a romantically wishful, wistful and emotionally fragile drifter who falls for the strong and silent investment banker Alex (Edward Holcroft)—which may not be his real name, and almost surely isn't his true profession.

Their eight-month courtship is captured in passionate and moody detail, although Alex's guarded nature makes him an unending enigma to Danny, a puzzle that only deepens when Alex suddenly disappears. Spy quickly becomes a brooding, haunting and surreal mystery of identity as well as a poignant study of lives lived in the shadows: those of spies as well as homosexuals.

"Romantics make unreliable spies," says Danny's protector/mentor Scotty (a moving Jim Broadbent), a former agent who knows only too well the toll of blackmail and self-denial. But Danny is resolute in pursuing the truth surrounding Alex, despite one contact's warning that "You have the very particular stink of a man out of his depth." The further Danny descends into a rabbit hole of secret conspiracy and paranoia, the more he realizes almost no one is who they seem and that his enemies will go to extraordinary lengths to protect their lies. (The tremendous supporting cast includes, in episodes to come, Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling and Adrian Lester as pivotal figures from Alex's cloudy, troubled past.)

"You're looking for answers, but are you ready for them?" a voice on the phone taunts Danny. A warning viewers might heed as well, because the audacious revelations in the final chapters are shattering and disturbing reminders of the cost of truth in a world built on deception.

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DC's Legends of Tomorrow - Pilot

Jeff Weddell/The CW

DC's Legends of Tomorrow

DC's Legends of Tomorrow: Lost in the Time Vortex

What a motley crew The CW has assembled for its latest superhero romp, which may be the one-too-many tipping point for an oversaturated genre that already compels us to watch The Flash on Tuesdays and Arrow on Wednesdays. There's a reason this time-traveling squad, comprised of characters introduced on the aforementioned shows, is known as DC's Legends of Tomorrow, because in today's world they're mostly a mess.

This mismatched gang of heroes and rogues is cobbled together by "Time Master" Rip Hunter (Doctor Who's charming Arthur Darvill), who has journeyed from the future in a Terminator-style scenario to combat master villain Vandal Savage (lackluster Casper Crump, who doesn't really seem up to the sinister challenge) and stop him from conquering the world in the next century. Hunter's not-quite-"A" team presents a comical clash of acting styles, many of them so awful you wonder if they're joking.

But it's in keeping with Legends' cheesily cartoonish approach to high-action comic-book storytelling, which can be jaunty enough fun if you turn your brain off when it comes to matters like disrupting the various timelines. It's worth it when the team zips back on the time ship Waverider to 1975, and Dr. Stein (the great Victor Garber), who's the smarter half of Firestorm, is appalled to meet his stoner younger self.

Still, after the first two episodes, I'm not convinced the crusade against Savage is enough to keep Legends from feeling like a waste of temporal effort. This feels like it should be a replacement show giving one of the other CW heroes a rest, the way ABC uses the delightful Agent Carter to spell Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a few weeks. Time, I suppose, will tell.

Baskets_Pilot_0916_f_hires2

Ben Cohen/FX

Baskets

Baskets: Empty Basket Case

In the increasingly eclectic and overstuffed world of cable comedy, there's a fine line between niche and blech. FX's banal Baskets crosses that line with a patronizing attitude that's as unpleasant as it is unfunny. Zach Galifianakis stars as sad clown (my least favorite type) Chip Baskets, who flunks out of a Parisian clown school in the opening episode, but doesn't let that failure penetrate the bubble of pretentious delusion in which he lives. He still thinks of himself as "Renoir," an artiste. Everyone else, including the viewer, will know better, and while it may be brave for the actor to do absolutely nothing to endear us to Chip, it makes for a miserable half-hour of TV.

Chip retreats to his arid homeland of Bakersfield, California, with a selfishly hateful green-card bride in tow and prospects no greater than a $4-an-hour dead-end gig as a painted target for bulls at a grungy local rodeo. Baskets' producers include Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel of IFC's Portlandia (which returns tonight and is a much better option in the same time period), and the only influence of their quirky humanistic sensibilities can be found in the supporting characters: Louie Anderson in droll drag as Chip's enabling mother, and especially deadpan Martha Kelly as the unflappable Martha, a mousy insurance agent who sticks with Chip no matter what abuse he hurls at her. Kelly imbues Martha with a wry inscrutability that hints at a passive-aggressive streak in the way she keeps turning up even (and especially) when not invited.

Beyond that, Baskets mocks its landscape of Arbys (it was funnier on The Daily Show) and Costcos with futile and painful condescension, and a cameo by Kato Kaelin, howling an off-key version of the National Anthem at the rodeo, only got me wondering how this dismal misfire ended up on the same network that's about to set the industry on fire with February's The People v. O.J. Simpson docudrama.

London Spy premieres Thursday, Jan. 21, 10/9c, on BBC America

DC's Legends of Tomorrow premieres Thursday, Jan. 21, 8/7c, on The CW

Baskets premieres Thursday, Jan. 21, 10/9c, on FX


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TV critic (and occasional TV therapist) Matt Roush answers viewer questions and concerns in his Ask Matt column each week. Wondering about plots, characters and twists on your fave shows? Submit your query to Matt via the form below: