Legit debuts tonight on FX at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
Legit’s a sneaky little show. In its first 10 minutes, it seems to be just another show about an asshole, about a guy who says whatever’s on his mind and makes those around him uncomfortable by doing so. The opening scene features stand-up comedian Jim Jefferies—playing a version of himself with the same name—expounding on marriage and children in absolutely horrifying fashion to his best friend Steve (played by improv comedy vet Dan Bakkedahl). He’s in line at the immigration office—Jefferies, both fictional and real, is Australian—and he’s tricked Steve into going with him under false pretenses. His every word seems designed to drive people up the wall, and the woman manning the counter at the office confirms this for viewers: This guy turns off everybody around him.
There are two ways to go with this particular character setup. The show can either try and make the guy such an unrepentant jerk that the audience becomes invested in seeing him get his comeuppance, or it can try to get the audience on his side, try to make him the voice for the petty frustrations all viewers might feel in common with him. What’s interesting about Legit is that it attempts to forge a third way down a surprisingly unconventional middle path: It wants to see if it can make Jim into a better person, but only in such incremental ways that the audience will never notice that he’s growing and changing before its very eyes. This means Jim’s meant to be either off-putting or enthralling, depending on whatever scene he happens to be in at the time. This shouldn’t work—and there are times when it doesn’t—but Legit manages the trick more often than not, at least in the three episodes sent out to critics.
The hidden spine of the series is meant to be Jim’s attempts to become “legitimate.” Among other things, this means that Jim wants to have the kind of life that would impress his mom back home, who seems none too taken with his stand-up career. But that also means Jim learning to look beyond himself and what he cares about and realize there are other people in his sphere that are worth his love and understanding. If that doesn’t sound like the basis of a laugh-out-loud comedy, well, Legit has several moments that are more dramatic than anything else, when Jim is forced to step outside of his own head and appreciate what’s going on around him. It creates a tricky balance, and that’s one the show doesn’t always get right in the first three episodes, but it also makes it feel deceptively different from the other comedies on FX. It’s mildly serialized, for one thing, and it keeps accumulating characters as it goes along, expanding and expanding from the three-character piece it seems to be at the start until it’s starting to have an entire universe around it.
The natural comparison point for the series is Louie, since this is on the same network as that show, and both series are based around the routines of stand-up comedians. (Indeed, the story in the pilot—about taking a friend with muscular dystrophy to a brothel so he can lose his virginity—is directly taken from one of Jefferies’ routines.) In actuality, though, the show is closer to one of Louie’s first descendants, Girls. As in that series, this one starts with a rather loathsome individual the audience isn’t sure how to take, and as in that series, the journey for that individual will be about learning to look beyond themselves and see the others surrounding them. Legit’s a coarser, ruder series than Girls, but it would have to be, since it’s built so fundamentally around Jeffries’ persona, but the two are surprisingly similar on a structural level. Credit for some of that—particularly the show’s sneaky serialization—may go to series co-creator Peter O’Fallon, whose work as a TV director has taken him on a tour of the great TV dramas of the last 30 years, including thirtysomething, Northern Exposure, House, and Pushing Daisies. (He also directed the pilot for the great, short-lived horror series American Gothic.) But the rhythms of the show feel distinctly like a long, shaggy story, well-told by a stand-up comedian.
None of this would work if it didn’t have heart. This is not to say the show is full of ooey-gooey moments or anything like that, but it is to say that every episode has a scene or two where Jim is forced to look at life through somebody else’s lens. Most of those come from DJ Qualls as Billy, Steve’s brother and the aforementioned friend with muscular dystrophy. Putting a character in a wheelchair could be a really cheap way to score some sympathy points with Jim around to make assholish jokes, but the show takes Billy and his needs and desires seriously. He’s not a saint, meant to show Jim the way to go, but just the reality of his condition is enough to force Jim out of his own selfishness. Oddly enough, Jim being such an asshole lets the show get away with bigger, more syrupy moments than it might otherwise, as in the conclusion of the third episode, when a particular reveal that would feel like too much in just about any other show works because Jim’s always there to undercut it, lurking at the edges of the screen. The relationship between Billy and Jim could—and probably should—feel cloying, but there’s a real, moving core to it, and it gives the show an engine that should serve it well. (Another character who’s allowed to be real and funny and moving is Billy’s roommate at the hospital he lives at, Rodney, a developmentally disabled man who can be enormously funny.)
There are plenty of problems here. Notably, the series seems to have a distinct inability to develop any female characters so far (though a handful of women will be in the recurring cast going forward, so there’s plenty of chances to develop them in the future). The one female character who gets more than a few seconds of screentime in these first three episodes is Mindy Sterling as Billy and Steve’s mother, and while the show gives a slight indication of how much she cares for her sons and how little she likes having a negative influence like Jim in their lives, it also makes her too often into a hectoring scold. Guy’s series, like this one, have a tendency to fall into this sort of irritating sexism, and it’s easily Legit’s greatest flaw. In addition, the first time through any given episode, that episode can feel like a weird tonal mishmash that’s all over the place, though watching that episode again usually gives a better idea of what O’Fallon and Jefferies are going for.
Making a TV series about moral betterment—no matter how much the guy at the center is an amusingly entertaining jackass—is always tough to do. It’s easy to indulge viewers’ fantasies of being the guy who starts out in a good place, then indulges all his darker impulses, particularly in a comedy, where those darker impulses can lead to funny places. (FX has had great success following this template, after all.) It’s a far tougher thing to ask the audience to eat its vegetables along with the main character, to think about all of the things they have that are good and celebrate those things while trying to spread good to others out there in the world. It’s uncertain just how long Legit can run as a series about a guy who realizes just what his life has been missing, but in its first three, the show is shaggy, surprisingly moral fun.
- We’ll be covering this week to week, so come back next week to hear Steve Heisler’s thoughts on episode two.