Marvel and FX’s much-anticipated new series Legion has finally arrived and just as advertised, it’s a strange beast indeed. Based on the Marvel comic series of the same name, Legion focuses on a thirty-something man named David (Dan Stevens) who has heard voices and seen things that aren’t there his whole life. Naturally, this has led up to him being placed in a mental hospital and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia but in reality, his mental instability is a manifestation of his mutant powers, which neither he nor anyone else really understand. Legion doesn’t provide easy answers and is definitely a mind-bending trip, but it’s also one of the best new shows of 2017 and absolutely deserving of your time. If you like comic book adaptations, but are growing a bit bored with the more traditional fare like Arrow or the Captain America movies, Legion is just what the doctor ordered.
The following are some of my reactions to the series premiere. I touch on mild spoilers, but I don’t give away any plot details that weren’t revealed in the trailers for show. Still, if you’re sensitive about anything even remotely spoiler-ish, you should probably stop reading now.
8. X-Men Connection Potential
In case you were unaware, David Haller/Legion is the son of Charles Xavier in the Marvel comics, which leaves a lot of room open for connections to the X-Men in future episodes. The premiere doesn’t confirm one way or another whether Haller is the son of Professor X in the show’s interpretation of the character, but even if he isn’t, showrunner Noah Hawley and his writing team still have plenty of opportunity to work in small winks and nods to he source material. Without going into spoilers, one of the premiere’s final scenes sends a clear message that Legion will do plenty of unexpected things with its Marvel universe connections and there have even been rumors that Patrick Stewart or James McAvoy will cameo as Professor X at some point.
Whereas pretty much every other comic book TV series in recent years go out of their way to make references to either the DC or Marvel universes (depending on the show), it’s refreshing to see a show like Legion remain coy about the extent to which it connects to its larger universe. I guess we’ll have to just have to wait and see what (if any) surprises it has in store in this regard.
7. Noah Hawley Is The Showrunner
If you’re not familiar with Noah Hawley’s work yet, you should be. A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Hawley’s most prominent role to date has been showrunner on another FX series, Fargo. In that series, Hawley proved himself to be a master of blending dark comedy and explosive flashes of actions and violence, and that combination is again on full display in Legion.
While Hawley is clearly a fan of universes with pre-established rules and mythology, his work on Fargo and now Legion show that his real interest is in characters and what makes them tick. Fargo is punctuated by unremarkable characters reacting to extreme situations and Legion takes that exploration to the next level by focusing on how perhaps the most remarkable man in existence engages with a reality he’s not even sure exists. In other words, Legion is safe in Hawley’s hands.
6. It’s a True Comic Book Prestige Drama
Comic book adaptations tend to get unfairly labelled as lowbrow fare but by the same token, there haven’t exactly been many superhero movies or TV shows made in the last decade that can rival something like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in terms of sophisticated examinations of heroism. While NBC is taking a stab at doing something very different with the genre with their comedy series Powerless, Legion feels like the first comic book show that deserves to be lumped in with notable prestige dramas such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or even FX’s own The Americans.
Legion simultaneously embraces its superhero trappings while taking the genre in new, mind-bending directions and there really hasn’t been anything like it. If Legion proves successful, hopefully it can convince other networks that specialize in prestige TV to consider launching other post modern takes on the comic book genre.
5. Dan Stevens Kills It As The Lead
Dan Stevens is perhaps best for his role as Matthew Crawley in the PBS drama Downton Abbey — although you should also check him out in the film The Guest — but he’s about as far away from that character as you can get here as David Haller, aka Legion. David has suffered from visions and voices pretty much his entire life and when we first meet him, he’s been in a mental hospital for six years. Of course, David isn’t actually a paranoid schizophrenic but he’s also not well, and Stevens does a remarkable job conveying both David’s humanity and the moments when he loses touch with reality (which is a lot).
Fast-talking and shifty-eyed David is a bit of an enigma when we meet him, but Stevens is able to make him likable and endearing quickly. The only problem is that, as the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, it’s hard to really trust anything David says, so it’s difficult to know if the character we’re following is who he claims to be or if he’s really more like the mysterious yellow-eyed demon he frequently glimpses in his visions. Either way, I’m sure Stevens is more than up to the task and I can’t wait to see where he steers David next.
4. The Supporting Cast Is Excellent
Dan Stevens may take center stage in Legion, but the show wouldn’t be half as good without its stellar cast of supporting characters. Rachel Keller owns the screen as Syd Barrett (love the Pink Floyd nod), a fellow patient at Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital who strikes up a romantic connection with David, but is hiding quite a few secrets of her own. Come to think of it, Legion is so far full of great female characters, with Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) trying to outcrazy everyone with her role as Lenny, David’s friend and confidant who’s never far from a bag of Twizzlers or her giant pair of headphones.
Katie Aselton (The League) is another standout as David’s affectionate sister Amy, who loves her brother but also keeps him at arm’s length (her removal of various sharp objects from her basement after David’s lamp-breaking outburst speaks volumes about her past experiences with her brother). An entirely different group of supporting players is introduced by the end of the premiere and judging by the characters we’ve met so far, they’re sure to each have their own unique quirks to discover.
3. It’s Gorgeous
Not since Hannibal has there been a show with as arresting a visual style as Legion. From the first frame to the last, Legion runs circles around most other series with its gorgeous cinematography and attention to detail. The whole thing is set in this retro-futurist world where the outfits scream 60s, but the flatscreen TVs and other technology glimpsed suggest a time period much closer to our own. It’s a brilliant way of making the viewer feel unbalanced and just a bit of the unease that David feels on a constant basis, never quite sure if the world being shown is real or just a fantasy.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the stunning visual effects, put to good use during moments where David loses control and lets his powers loose. Simply put, I don’t think superpowers have ever looked this good on television before and I’m intrigued to see how David’s (and others) abilities are conveyed in future episodes. Admittedly, there’s a sequence toward the end of the premiere that doesn’t quite seem to be up to snuff visually, but the scene is shot so expertly that it’s easy to overlook.
2. It’s Not Clear Where It’s Going To Go
I’m sure I’m not alone in getting to the end of the premiere and not knowing what the heck I just watched. While I’m sure some viewers were out long before the credits rolled on this 90-minute episode of television, I found myself becoming more enraptured with Legion as it progressed, to the point where I wanted to fire up the next episode as soon as this one was over. Part of the reason for that definitely has something to do with that stunning final action sequence, but it’s also because I have no idea what direction this show is going to go in next.
Even if it does go down the “chosen one” path with David and his new group of allies, a trope that we’ve seen countless times in these types of stories, I’m confident that Noah Hawley will do something completely bonkers with it all and turn expectation on its head. Sure, there’s always the danger that Legion will turn into another Lost and introduce so many questions that it won’t even bother trying to answer, but with only 8 episodes in this first season, we’re sure to arrive at a destination before long. What that destination looks like, however, is anyone’s guess at this point.
1. Focus On Mental Health
Something that I didn’t even consider until well after watching the series premiere (probably because I was too busy trying to process what I’d just watched) is that Legion does a good job of shining a light on mental health. Mental illness is still very much stigmatized in our culture and Legion tackles it with aplomb. While much of the show’s storytelling and visuals are designed to convey David’s mental condition to the audience and try to help us understand his view of the world, issues such as the nature of sanity are also examined.
Syd’s speech about the definition of normal and David just embracing who he is is one of standout moments of the episode (it helps that it’s all topped off with David asking Syd to be his girlfriend in the most endearing way possible), but we also how even those closest to David are wary of getting too close, as his sister Amy’s demeanor and insistence that he come home when visiting David in the hospital suggests that she probably doesn’t grasp the reality of his situation, which is probably true of most of us when it comes to dealing with mental health.