'Legion': TV Review

Chris Large/FX

Noah Hawley from 'Fargo' brings an obscure Marvel property to intriguing life with a visual masterpiece about mental illness and mutant powers.

No one should be surprised that Noah Hawley, who masterfully imagined two wildly different television seasons of Fargo, would approach a relatively obscure Marvel X-Men character in a completely different way than others, and that the end result would be on FX, meshing well with its stable of ambitious dramas.

But maybe the surprise is that it all came out so triptastic?

Legion, based on the Marvel comics of Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, is less about superhero-esque fight scenes and more about the mental mind-bleep of looking at schizophrenia as an untapped power rather than an illness. Hawley has essentially found an intellectual backdoor into the mutant X-Men concept and reimagines how to tell that kind of story in a riveting, off-kilter visual way.

Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel's television division, has said that Legion is "a kind of show Marvel has never done before" and it's evident in Hawley's interpretation. While viewers will, by the second and third episodes, get a sense of where Legion will be going and what it will be trying to do in explaining the paranormal ability of David Haller (Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey), the expanded pilot is one very different and trippy approach, a boldly rewarding dissociated narrative that's both weirdly compelling and deeply confusing while never being alienating.

]Much of that cinematic roll of the dice can be credited to Hawley (who directs in addition to writing and having created the show). His visual stamp is essential to the success of Legion because its non-linear, visually disorienting pilot redefines expectations. Meaning, the audience isn't shown what David's "normal" life is like before it takes a detour, as most stories like this do, with woozy cinematic flourishes to clue viewers into when our main character is off his meds, etc. No, Hawley has essentially decided to fully tell the narrative from the mental interior of David's brain and build out from there what he sees, imagines, suffers, dreams and acts out from that POV.

That choice makes the first episode of Legion a visual thrill-ride of disconnected, juxtaposed narratives that are brain-bending and, at times, purposefully confusing. Hawley wants the audience to be disoriented as they wonder exactly how bad David's mental illness is (exacerbated by drug use with another friend and fellow disturbed mental patient, Lenny, played by Parks and Recreation alum Aubrey Plaza). While the second and third episodes certainly continue this pattern, Hawley is able to pivot at the end of the wonderfully weird hour-plus pilot and set up a storyline where viewers can more clearly understand what's going on, as a rogue group led by a therapist named Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), helps show David that he's not schizophrenic at all — he's one of the most powerful people alive, with gifts that go beyond telepathy to telekinesis and who knows where in the outer limits of imagination.

But even knowing that's the idea that drives Legion doesn't actually mean the show settles into a rote visual pattern — viewers will constantly be taken aback as Hawley aggressively keeps up the optical hijinks and integrates myriad sound-tweaking options as well, from dissonance to garbled or tinny vocals to white-noise whispers. By framing David's mental freak-outs this way, stylized and absorbing, Hawley is able to essentially replace what might otherwise be rote action fight scenes. Keeping it away from preconceived comic book flourishes allows Legion to maintain a more grounded and intellectual storyline. It's a well-conceived and bold escape from X-Men or superhero conceits.

David's time in a mental institute is shared with Lenny, who has been driven there primarily by extreme drug and alcohol addiction. While at the Clockworks mental institute, David also meets Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller, Fargo), a patient who doesn't like to be touched (for reasons that become specific when she hits it off with David) and who becomes an essential key to keeping David out of the hands of a shady group known as Division 3. The fight for "control" of David's gifts comes down to Melanie Bird and her group vs. Division 3.

Legion opens with a montage of David's early life, rife with drug use and mental instability, set to The Who's "Happy Jack," which tips its hat to Hawley's sense of fun around psychedelic songs (like "She's a Rainbow" by The Rolling Stones or the weird agitation in Thomas Dolby's "Hyperactive!"), not to mention that the Sydney "Syd" Barrett character is no doubt named after the Pink Floyd founder who had his own bouts of mental illness and drug use. (If there's not an introduction at some point of a character named Roky Erickson, I'd be stunned — not only because of his connection to psychedelic music in the 13th Floor Elevators and his own mental illness, but also because he's from Austin, Texas, Hawley's adopted home.)

With its stellar cast — featuring Bill Irwin and Jeremie Harris, who work to help David at Melanie's hidden compound; Katie Aselton as his beloved sister Amy; and the future emergence of Jemaine Clement as Melanie's husband Oliver Bird — Legion has a lot of gifted people around to bring life to Hawley's vision. (Smart and Keller worked with him on Fargo.) Stevens, in particular, is asked to do a lot in this series and pulls it off convincingly. Not only is he using an American accent and sporting oddly cut short (and long, in flashbacks) hair, he has to nail the schizophrenia/mutant mind-bending stuff and never lets it get hokey or lose the well-earned harrowing part of it that Hawley instills. The audience gets its sympathy for David through all he's suffered as a child.

As it turns out, that's a lot. Where Legion works best is establishing a whole lot of crazy in the early going, with little sense of how it connects or where it came from — only that it's creepy as hell (an oddly shaped "yellow-eyed devil" that scares the bejesus out of David into his adult life; a moody, evil boy that starts off as the worst bedtime storybook character ever and morphs into what looks like an inflatable-headed Adolph Hitler). Toss in David's varied mental breaks and the scary powers he doesn't understand and can't control and you've got a story that virtually demands an array of jarring images.

Hawley's decision to disorient viewers by making David's unsettling and confusing mental landscape the visual launching point for this world is strategically smart — if challenging — and the skillful camera work has a panache that stamps the early episodes. Stylistically, there's nothing quite like Legion's smart take on mutant powers, which keeps the series more dramatic and less light or flippantly Marvel-esque, a welcome change from other projects out there.

It might seem weird to have a Marvel show on FX, or to have it star that upper-crust Brit from Downton Abbey, filtered through the creator of Fargo, but somehow it all works. Three episodes of Legion — in all their cracked visual glory — were enough to want the rest of the season immediately.

Cast: Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Katie Aselton, Bill Irwin, Jeremie Harris, Jemaine Clement, Amber Midthunder
Created, written and directed by: Noah Hawley
Airs: Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT, starting Feb. 8 (FX)

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