Legion (FX, Thursdays, 9/8C) is based on a mutant character from Marvel’s X-titles. In the comics, he’s the son of Professor Charles Xavier and has amazing mental abilities that he isn’t completely sure of and definitely not in complete control of.
Noah Hawley (Fargo) has taken the character, here called David Haller, and created a wonderful (in the sense of full of wonder) and original dramatic series that tells us his story in a way that reflects his life – instead of the boring, straightforward manner we’ve seen before.
Legion opens with a montage – set to The Who’s psychedelic hit Happy Jack – that lets us see David’s life from the crib to the asylum. It’s shown in a way that could pass for David’s point of view if he wasn’t in the center of action – and it shows what has to be the moment things started to go wrong for him.
One moment he’s a happy kid laughing at an experiment gone wrong in science class, the next, he has the voices of a world of strangers exploding in his brain.
At Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, we find David (Dan Stevens), visited by his sister Amy (Katie Aselton) and asking when he can come home; having a bad dream that creates real world chaos in his room; hanging with his only friend, the deeply disturbed Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), and meeting a new patient, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller, Fargo).
Again, we are seeing things the way David sees them – even if he’s front and center – and it’s unnerving because of his situation. If he’s genuinely schizophrenic, then he’s an unreliable narrator; if he’s something else, then he’s still unreliable because he has no idea why he’s like he is, either.
Things begin to change for him when Syd (who’s an obvious name check to Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett – a famous sufferer of schizophrenia), sitting in on a group therapy session asks, ‘What if your problems aren’t in your head? What if they’re not even problems?”
The exchange prompts David to blurt out, ‘You want to be my girlfriend?’
Syd’s in the hospital for being extremely antisocial – she does not want to be touched, physically, in any way. We will learn why in one of the episode’s most dramatic and confusing sequences – but it will explain why she asked David those questions.
So, cue The Rolling Stones’ She’s a Rainbow for a clever montage featuring the guy who hears voices and the girl who doesn’t want to be touched – a sequence more romantic than anything to be found in a dozen Nicholas Sparks movies.
There are, of course, comic book elements that have to be explored – the people who are questioning David about his abilities/illness are more than they seem, and there is a kind of Professor X/mentor figure in the wings, but they are being handled in fresh ways, too.
It’s with the interviewer (Hamish Linklater) and his creepy attendant (Mackenzie Grey) that Hawley addresses the superhero conventions from whence Legion sprang – a line about David being ‘the most powerful mutant we’ve ever seen’ discreetly signals to the audience that the series did, indeed, come from a comic book – not that that’s being held against it, but rather emphasizing the surprising depth to be found in comics for the last several decades.
Throughout the extra-length series premiere, the fact that we see things through David’s point of view means that when we see something that is supposed to be normal, it feels weird. More and more, we relate to David and his fellow patients.
That things happen in a non-linear sequence for most of the episode leaves us hanging onto David’s perspective like shipwrecked sailors hanging onto bits of debris in hopes of eventual rescue – and, in subsequent episodes, Hawley’s storytelling does ease into a bit more familiar sequential storytelling style – though there are always going to be those out-of-body, weird bits that harken back to the premiere, keeping the series feeling fresh and unique.
There a lot of Marvel and DC comic book-based shows on TV and many of them are great fun. None, however, look or feel as original as Legion. It is a non-super-hero show about a guy with mutant powers that could as easily have been just another superhero show.
It is to Noah Hawley’s credit that he saw something different in the premise – and to FX and Marvel’s that they let him explore David Haller’s story in such a cool, new way.
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