Showrunner: Noah Hawley
Legion is a hard show to describe – but whatever it is, it’s in a realm of its own. It’s a Marvel property, but not in any immediately recognisable way. We follow the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who resides in a mental hospital with his buddy Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). When David meets a new patient named Sydney (Rachel Keller), strange events lead him to suspect that he’s not mentally ill, but rather a mutant with superpowers.
But the show really comes into its own when it starts exploring the vivid, chaotic, and haunting scenes that make up its characters’ internal experience. And that in itself might be the best way to describe the show – Legion is, in no uncertain terms, an experience. That our protagonist David is a psychic mutant seems almost less interesting than the simple conflict that comes from the ever-blurring line between reality and fabrication in his mind – and we’re brought along for every step of that ride, mysterious and confusing as it is.
While Legion is based on a character from the X-Men comics, the show stands out from the rest of the Marvel screen universe by focusing on its own artistic goals and executing them well. Outside of the use of words like ‘mutant’ and ‘powers’ and some obscure allusions to X-Men characters, it might have passed for an entirely original property. For the first season of a show as experimental as Legion is, it seems like a good decision to let the show stand on its own two legs before dropping the mandatory Wolverine and Avengers references. Sure, I’m looking forward to certain inevitable crossovers with the rest of the Marvel universe, but I don’t really care how David Haller fits into the Marvel universe – I care how the universe fits around him. That seems like a good sign.
The actors deserve plenty of credit for the show’s success. Dan Stevens is incredibly likeable as David despite the debatable virtue of his character, bringing a sort of innocent playfulness to the role that he doesn’t get to exercise often. (He is virtually unrecognisable if you’ve only seen him in Downton Abbey, what with his constant bed-head and flawless American accent.) The other stand out is Aubrey Plaza, who is clearly in her element here; it’s as if she’s finally playing that dark twisted role that’s been lurking behind her deadpan delivery throughout her career. Jemaine Clement also pops up halfway into the season and – it should be no surprise at this point – blends in effortlessly, suggesting that he might be an upcoming contender for Stan Lee’s post as the reigning champion of cameos.
Showrunner Noah Hawley is now three for three in my books, coming off the heels of two excellent seasons of FX’s anthology series Fargo. Fargo proves that Hawley knows how to treat his audience to stylistic experimentation and general narrative weirdness while also catering to the audience’s need for structured narrative gratification. Hawley trusts the audience to trust him, and this mutual trust is of supreme importance when it comes to Legion, where the narrative twists and turns dramatically before it even begins to make sense.
In an interview with Variety, Hawley notes that “Legion is meant to be a show that is a state of mind. […] There’s a hypnotic quality to the way we put it together.” And the success of this endeavor is hard to deny – one particular sequence with crickets chirping in the background may have actually put me under. When the show is at its best, every element of the production comes together to make the viewing experience captivating and affecting, even though it may not be clear what is going on. There is an element of Twin Peaks to the show’s dark unconscious side, occasionally shifting towards that Lynchian jazz showroom vibe as we push into the recesses of David’s mind. But Legion largely makes its weirdness its own, using this shifting sense of reality to cycle between genres and styles. We move from modern scenes devoid of sound to ’20s-inspired silent horror, and from psychedelic dance sequences to vivid bursts of noisy psychological chaos. Jeff Russo (who also worked on Fargo) produces a masterful soundtrack heavily inspired by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to ground the series in an atmosphere of tense, pulsing uncertainty.
With all of that said, the show isn’t without its growing pains. Some elements of the characters and their narrative threads can seem a little thin due to the season’s limited length; long periods of time are condensed to such a point that the timeline becomes ambiguous, and some of the minor characters get no development beyond their mutant superpowers. From a visual standpoint, while the CGI is generally on point, there were a few occasions where the effects were just sketchy enough to take me out of the moment and think about the production of the scene instead.
Still, the show’s setbacks are minor considering the intensity and breadth of the audio-visual experience that it affords the viewer. The best part of watching Legion is sitting back and letting it take you somewhere weird, which it does consistently and unfailingly. Even when the show missteps, it’s treading in new territory – and it’s entertaining enough just to see if it finds solid ground or slips in its own high-concept astral muck.