Legion is a mesmerizing mutant gamble that really pays off

Contributed by
Feb 3, 2017

SPOILER-FREE PREVIEW:

I've never spent any time inside the head of a mentally unstable telepath, but I can't imagine the real thing would be that far off from the places Legion takes us in its daring, beautifully constructed series premiere.

In interviews to promote the new FX series -- a rare collaboration between Marvel Television and Fox -- creator Noah Hawley (Fargo) has consistently expressed a desire to steer away from predictable hero vs. villain superhero beat-'em-ups while also using the genre to his storytelling advantage.

On the surface, that's nothing new. Throw a rock and you'll hit a writer or director talking about how their superhero project is somehow different from all the others. Hawley actually makes good on his promise, though, and he does it without ever treating comic book storytelling as though it's something that's beneath him. The result is a challenging new series that's a bit of a gamble, but as long as you're paying attention you won't want it to end.

David Haller (Dan Stevens) hears voices, and his struggles with them (along with a few other weird things he can't really explain) have led him to a psychiatric hospital, where he hangs out with his friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) and develops a romantic relationship with Syd (Rachel Keller), a fellow patient who refuses to let him touch her. Medication seems to be helping David with his condition, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, but no one -- not even him -- is fully aware of what's really going on in his head.

"Chapter 1," the series premiere, paints a portrait of David through three different phases of his struggle: His time in the hospital, a time before the hospital when he suffered a breakdown, and a time shortly after he left the hospital as he's being interviewed about an incident that took place there. Laced in-between are dreams, hallucinations, and surreal vignettes which illustrate David's very real fear that he can never be sure what around him is real and what's not.

Indeed, Legion's particular storytelling style -- costumes and sets that could easily belong in a '70s sci-fi film or a modern psychological thriller, rapid shifts in camera and lighting technique, and performances heavy on emotion but light on exposition -- seems designed from the ground up to make the viewer question the reality of the story (just like David). What feels like a dream sequence could be revealed as a superpower-infused fit, and vice-versa. Memories could be lies. Simple conversations could be hallucinations. It's all deliberately and rather elegantly confounding, but in a way that never frustrates. There's a difference between a story that chooses to be weird for the sake of weirdness and a story with a plan. Hawley has a plan. You feel it in every carefully considered word, and so you're ready to follow him into the murky future.

None of which is to say Legion doesn't have a plot. It does, but I'll save most of that for the post-broadcast recaps so as not to spoil some of the episode's more elegant reveals. What's important to note, as far as the plot is concerned, is that Hawley does not sacrifice genre theatrics on the way to making prestige character-study magic. The characters may question what's going on with David, but we viewers know what's up right away: He's a mutant, an extraordinarily powerful one capable of some incredible things. The show wields the ambiguity hovering over David's abilities with great care, winding up characters and sequences until they snap in an explosion of mutant-fueled chaos. It might not be The Avengers battling an army of robots, but Legion makes each of its dazzling supernatural moments count with gorgeous visuals and haunting performances.

All of this is then held together by the cast, primarily the trio of Stevens, Plaza and Keller. The dry wit Hawley so carefully crafted in Fargo is here as well, but with a more sardonic edge typical of characters capable of reducing rooms to rubble. Hawley's dramatic sensibility, coupled with the comic book mythos that slowly emerges over the course of the first hour, might present a dizzying tonal challenge to most actors, but the three stars make it look easy. You want to hang out with Lenny, fall in love with Syd and journey to the center of David's brain, and it's because the actors who embody them are so winning and yet so vulnerable at the same time.

Legion is that very rare example of something that really does live up to its promise to be unlike anything else in its genre at the moment, a fascinating mutation of superhero action, psychological thriller and darkly comic character study. It's beautiful, perplexing, energetic, ambitious, and addictive, and while it may take a few minutes for your spandex-loving eyes to adjust to this kind of superhero show, I promise it's worth the patience. If the series can sustain the level of creativity put forth in the premiere, we've got something very special on our hands.

Legion premieres on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 10 on FX.