If you just caught the 1st season of FX’s latest original series Legion (although given the less-than-stellar ratings I’m thinking you haven’t), then you probably have a rush of feelings towards it. Over the season’s eight episodes, viewers were given a relentlessly strange narrative that was ostensibly trying to do something transgressive with the superhero genre while also being accessible towards fans of the X-Men franchise. The results tended to befuddle many yet greatly appeal to the more open-minded, and those that stuck with the series from beginning to end will hopefully agree with this: it worked, and it worked really fucking well!
Series creator Noah Hawley (the man responsible for FX’s other largely transgressive genre exercise, Fargo) has indeed found a glory box in his take on a lesser-known X-Men comics character. Taking the character’s setup of being misconstrued by professionals as being insane when he’s actually a massively powerful telepath, Legion is psychological, unpredictable, and enjoyable in a way no other comic-book-derived series has been to date.
Simply put, this debut season for Legion outdoes any other TV comic adaptation, even the better ones (i.e., The Walking Dead, Preacher, Jessica Jones, etc.), and also just might officially mark Noah Hawley as being the best thing to happen for genre television since Joss Whedon’s hey-day. Here’s five reasons why Legion should be your next TV obsession:
1. It doesn’t hand-hold, but it doesn’t convolute either.
Right from the series’ premiere, Legion comes off as downright weird. The pilot episode is non-linear and often elliptic, but it features only the top of the madness iceberg. The series only continues to get stranger as it goes on, with plot twists, unexpected scenarios, and at least one massive character revelation. What’s more, the series is consistently enigmatic, keeping certain details in the shadows like what time and place the series is set in and even the objectives of many of its characters.
Hawley & Co. certainly take large risks for a series that's part of a franchise more attributable towards box-office results and easy satisfaction than provoking thought, but Legion is still highly accessible even when it’s at its most refreshingly weird. The show offers plenty of action sequences that are as stimulating visually as they are effective in enhancing the storyline (particularly a long, single-shot sequence at the end of the pilot that’s more technically impressive than any of the blood-letting in Logan), and the scenarios are consistently fun, often in the most surreal way.
What’s more, the show wears a real human face to it. Despite the supernatural elements and general bizarreness, Legion’s characters feel down to earth, and their motivations never appear anything less than naturalistic. Even when the show appears its most translucent (“could this whole fucking thing be a dream?”), it’s never frustrating, and the payoffs come frequently.
2. The casting is pitch perfect.
There’s no denying that Noah Hawley is a man known for picking the right roles for unexpected actors (he probably gave Billy Bob Thornton his best role in over a decade for the 1st season of Fargo), but in Legion, he really lucked out in getting a cast of colorful individuals that truly brought his idiosyncratic world to fruition. All the players prove well-cast, including the actors he previously worked with on Fargo (Rachel Keller and Jean Smart), and there’s one particularly tricky casting choice that ended up augmenting the show’s content considerably.
Star Dan Stevens proves to be a supreme choice for protagonist David Haller. The British actor had probably been best known for his role on the period piece series Downton Abbey, but he showed he had a wider range as the villain in Adam Wingard’s critically lauded action-horror film The Guest, and he gives an equally impressive turn here in Legion.
Stevens captures David's unstable state with his sketchy mannerisms, but he also portrays him with a degree of confidence. Despite his paranoia, we get a sense from David that he’s self-aware that his view on reality is subjective, and he also seems to know that he is the carrier of unfathomable degrees of power. By turns humorous and fascinating, Stevens is ever a pleasure to witness in Legion, and he’s a likely candidate for being one of the year’s best leading performances for a TV series.
Perhaps of even more import, though, is the casting of Parks and Recreation alumna Aubrey Plaza as Lenny Busker, who plays an even more psychologically ambiguous character. While Hawley had originally intended for Lenny to be played by an older man, he found that he might be able to do something different when he met the 32-year old actress during the audition process. The gender-swap ended up paying off, as Plaza really gives an alarming performance as Lenny, whose something of a composite of all her pre-existing roles.
Known for playing characters that are as cynical as they are humorous, Plaza is bewitching to watch as Lenny is often hilarious, but she’s also able to switch her tone to terrifying seamlessly. To say more about Lenny would be giving away too much, but rest assured that the writing allows for her to do a whole bunch of crazy shit, and it might simply be the role she was born to play (even more so than her breakout as April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation).
3. It doesn’t give a damn about being part of the X-Men franchise.
When Legion was announced as a TV series, the thought that I’m sure a lot of you nerds had on your minds was this: “Is it in the same universe as the X-Men movies?” Granted, I’m not even sure the X-Men movies take place in the X-Men movie universe at this point either (face it, the continuity has gotten super fucked), but in regards to Legion taking place in the same fictional space as Logan and X-Men: First Class, then all I figure to say is this: does it really matter?
Hawley has repeatedly stated that Legion is supposed to be a standalone story with limited links to the X-Men franchise. It’s lucid that the show is aesthetically trying to do something completely different than the X-Men films were (a feature that Hawley said is indebted to Haller being an unreliable narrator), so fans shouldn’t get all uptight about it. In regards to the character’s background in the comics, however, seeing that he is supposedly the son of Charles Xavier (arguably the most popular mutant outside of Wolverine), there are some good winks to good ol’ Professor X this season, even if this also remains a grey area.
4. The show looks amazing.
Just from style alone, Legion communicates as being like nothing else on television. In terms of lighting and cinematography, Legion has cinematic quality week-after-week, and it boasts an environment that’s brimming with imagination. Hawley has given his world a décor and aesthetic that seems retro, contemporary, and futuristic all at once, although there’s a particular era Legion seems to be adhering to.
The show is constantly referencing the 1960s, from how the character’s dress to the use of pop songs on the soundtrack, and it honestly might capture the era in a more vibrant way than the more repressed Mad Men ever did. It’s safe to assume that Haller’s anachronistic view of reality has something to do with his psychology (which remains unexplained this season), but I feel it’s also Hawley’s way of paying homage to some of the show’s influences. The scenes that take place in a mental asylum clearly evoke One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the twisty narrative is similar to the work of influential sci-fi author Philip K. Dick. It can admittedly be a little difficult to decide whether the aesthetic is a thematic enhancer or just a visual flourish, but all-in-all one would like to put it closer to being the former.
5. The potential for future seasons is endless.
I won’t spoil Legion’s finale, but rest assured that it ends on a note that’s satisfying while also giving the show plenty of ground to walk on next year. Hawley has indeed made a beautiful show, and it’s seemingly reinvigorated people’s faith in the future of the X-Men franchise, which just a year ago seemed like it might be in good need of a reboot. Patrick Stewart even said he would break out of X-Men retirement if he was asked to portray Professor X on Legion.
With scores of comic books to draw adaptation from, as well as Hawley’s never diminishing sense for mad brilliance, Legion is truly something special. It’s a must-see TV series, even for those that don’t particularly gravitate towards superhero shows (in fact, they’re more likely to appreciate its more subtle charms).
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.