I’ve always had a bit of a problem with television shows trying their hardest to be “cinematic” without actually understanding what separates the big and small screens. Sure, it’s the budget, the visuals, and a lot of other things, honestly. But there’s also an essence about “cinematic” films and the “almost-cinematic-but-not-quite” TV shows that try to emulate them. FX’s Taboo has suffered from this since the day it premiered a few weeks ago, and FX showrunner Noah Hawley understands this phenomenon all too well.
There’s a moment in the first episode of his new show Legion where, during a flashback sequence, the aspect ratio changes, the lens changes, the colors change. Suddenly, we’re watching a movie. And, as quickly as it transformed before our eyes, it returns to its natural state, back to the TV show we were watching before. It was at this moment, roughly halfway through an already excellent debut episode, that I knew Hawley had millions of people right where he wanted them, and that this was just the beginning of something far more intricate than anyone had agreed to.
After months of anticipation, FX’s Legion has finally arrived. Starring Dan Stevens as David Haller, a patient at a tech-savvy mental institution who is far more powerful than he realizes, Legion is the brainchild of Fargo creator Noah Hawley and Marvel Comics, who introduced the character as Charles Xavier’s gifted son in 1985. More than thirty years later, the story gets the small-screen adaptation it deserves, in what is one of the most promising television debuts of recent memory.
Unlike Marvel Studios, which has always produced content that falls on the safer end of the spectrum, Fox tends to take risks with its superhero IPs. The upcoming film Logan is the first Wolverine movie to carry an R-rating, and last year’s Deadpool was proof that audiences can not only handle but actively desire a foul-mouthed superhero franchise. With Legion, Fox’s X-Men brand continues to tread new territory, bringing audiences one of the most complex, cerebral, and visually stunning comic book adaptations in existence.
Opening with a brilliant montage that quickly catches us up on who David Haller is and what he’s seen, Legion wastes no time messing with our heads and confusing us until we’re too exhausted to try and figure it out ourselves. Having been institutionalized for most of his life, we’re formally introduced to Haller in his 30s, where he seems to have made very little progress regarding his mental health. A full-time patient at a prestigious institution, David’s days consist mostly of long conversations with his friend and fellow patient Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza), as well as the occasional game of ping-pong.
One day, David becomes lovestruck when a beautiful new patient named Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) walks through the doors and into his life. The two form an instant connection and bond on every conceivable, non-physical level – Syd has a strict rule against touching, which leads to some hilarious and adorable improvisations that keep them close without having to rub their skin together. When Syd eventually breaks the news to David that she’s leaving, he’s sure he’ll never get to see the love of his life again. But their time together in the institution is just the beginning of what’s sure to be a thrilling journey through time, space, and anything else they can think of.
There’s a lot going on in this first episode, so I’m not going to do a detailed breakdown of every single scene. What I will say is this: if you’re going into this hoping for something mindless and fun, you’re definitely in the wrong place. Legion is not your grandpa’s X-Men story, and it aims to do a lot more than loosely tie some weak character threads together until it’s time for the next action scene. You’re going to be confused, you’re going to question what’s real and what’s not, and you’re going to want to know more. But what makes Legion great is that we’re going on this journey with David, which means we know as much as he does and we get new information when he gets it. Hawley stages some really well-crafted flashback, dream, and memory sequences that effectively convey how disorienting it is to live inside of David’s mind.
The key to all of it, though, is the characters. Comic book adaptations aren’t always known for setting the standard in terms of what we might call “great writing,” but Hawley’s reputation precedes himself, and I’m sure his fantastic work on Fargo allowed him more creative control on this series than would be afforded to another, less experienced showrunner. As it stands, Legion and the characters in it feel wholly original, as if the story is one that came directly from Hawley and not decades of established lore and story arcs. None of it feels forced in by studio execs, and the show isn’t afraid to take some detours along the way. Sometimes, though, it can be a bit much, and at 70-something minutes, Legion‘s pilot can stray a bit too far into the realm of self-indulgence (one scene, in particular, a choreographed dance, comes to mind). These moments are short-lived, however, and the episode doesn’t derail enough times to become an actual problem.
And yet, for as long as Legion‘s premiere is, we’re barely scratching the surface of what’s to come. I have absolutely no idea where we’re going to end up by the end of next week’s episode, and I’m sure that’s what Hawley wanted. In its final moments, when David is broken out of an interrogation room by Syd and the team accompanying her – including an appearance by Jean Smart as Melanie Bird – I really got the sense that Legion’s reality is infinite, expansive, and rife with possibilities. If this isn’t the best new show on TV, it’s definitely the most ambitious.
GEEK Grade: A-
Next week we get even deeper into the world of Legion:
Legion airs Wednesdays at 10pm on FX.
Written and Directed by Noah Hawley