"Legends," based on the Robert Littell novel, returns Monday on TNT. But think of this return as a brand new series -- at least that's what TNT wants you to think. Not particularly happy with the first season, both the producers and TNT have over-hauled the show. Here's my take:

"Legends," TNT, 10 p.m.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Everything about undercover agent Martin Odum (Sean Bean) is a lie. But the Big Question here is: What exactly is the truth? Continuing his quest begun in the first season, he may regret he bothered to ask. In the second season opener, he's a fugitive in London, looking for some threads that connect him to a lost past. Of that past: In 2001, FBI agent Curtis Ballard (Steve Kazee) and his Czech police partner, Gabi Miskova (Winter Ave Zoli) are in Prague, looking for an extremely violent Russian gangster known as Dimitry. Who's Dimitry? Odum, of course.

Odum -- whose alter egos have alter egos, and those have alter egos of their own, and so on -- was a great spy, but he also suffers from multi personality disorder, which has allowed him to carve fully separate realities within each of those personalities. But Odum's getting old. Time to find the real Odum.

 If there's a real Odum to find.

TNT insists tonight is a fresh start for the series too. "Legends" -- from Howard Gordon, Jeffrey Nachmanoff and novelist Littell -- wants to get back to the source material, and maybe (just maybe) discover a passionate audience. Like so much of Odum's memory, that was missing last season too.

MY SAY There may be all sorts of ways to think about poor Martin Odum and his search for self. Does he represent whole nations in the same predicament -- seeking their souls in a world that changes by the hour or even minute? Or is he some sort of everyman, who takes an unexpected detour to Kafka? Goes to bed a man, wakes up something else (an insect, perhaps).

advertisement | advertise on newsday

He is persecuted, certainly, but he was also the persecutor. He seeks family, assuming family is the beginning point, and therefore the basis of all that matters as a human being. But come on, Marty: Even we know that that spies never come in from the cold, to sit by the warm hearth, with wife and children happily prattling away. Spies are as spies do: Seeking information, or destroying information, while people become either conveyors of the information or obstacles to the gathering of the information. Either way, they become casualties. Spies don't have happy families. They can't.

 At least all of this -- these questions of meaning and context -- are what makes the second season of "Legends" potentially compelling. Tonight's opener, with its shifting time frames, POVs, muddled moral bearings, and glimpses of families (which are not what they appear to be either) is apparently a re-set that brings this series much closer to the source material -- Littell's 2005 bestseller, "Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation.”

I can't vouch for that, having neither read the book, nor kept up with the first season. But if memory serves -- and "Legends" is about the unreliable service of memory also -- the first season was a straight-ahead potboiler with a romantic interest (Ali Larter, who's not back) and enough full-bore straight-ahead action to make someone confuse this for a Ludlum retread instead of a Littell one.

Tonight, all that quite obviously has changed. The opener absolutely feels more like a show that wants to be a novel -- with shifting time scales, different locales (from Prague to London, and points in between), and a considerable amount of backstory that relies on a certain degree of familiarity on the part of the viewer.

But to a certain degree only. I do think you can pick this up without having seen last season, or without having an advanced degree in the intricate spycraft that Littell fictionally specializes in. In a sense, this seems like a show determined to please Littell fans -- not necessarily TNT drama ones.

@Newsday

 What's good about this is exactly what Littell may have intentioned -- in a macro-sort of way --  all along: What are the fates of nations and of the world post-9/11? The battle lines, such as they are, have been redrawn and erased many times over since 2001, and certainly since the end of the Cold War. Shifting identities and allegiances are the norm; confusion is the constant.

And that word, "dissimulation," takes on a deeper or more subtle macro-meaning too, as in the Big Lie. If "truth" is difficult to obtain or impossible to achieve, then what hope does Martin Odum have in finding out the truth about himself?

If this sounds like a theme paper series as opposed to an exciting propulsive one, then that may be a fault tonight too. But it does seem like a minor fault: Bean's Odum, or whatever his name is, isn't just your standard-issue Conflicted Hero that you've seen on TV so many times in recent years. His plight may be the plight of nations, and even the plight of you and me: Finding solid ground in a complicated dangerous world where that is increasingly more difficult to find.

He's conflicted, alright. Who wouldn't be?

For that reason, this all-new, refocused "Legends" is a series that's earned a second look.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

BOTTOM LINE: Good re-start and better than the real start last season.

GRADE B+