Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Universe All Its Own: FX's Legion

Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller in FX's Legion.

“Something new needs to happen soon.” – David Haller, in the first episode of FX's Legion.

I'm fairly certain no one has looked at the current line-up of television shows and thought, "What we really need are more superheroes." With multiple series airing on cable, network, and streaming channels, I'm not sure we've ever had as many competing superhero shows at the same time before. Ranging from the light, and sometimes emotionally stunted, stories of the CW's so-called Arrowverse (the best of which remains the consistently delightful Legends of Tomorrow), to the dark depths Netflix has mined for its growing stable of Marvel shows, to NBC's Powerless, an ensemble office comedy set in the bright palettes of DC's Silver Age, the shows themselves are as diverse in tone (and quality) as the vast sweep of contemporary television itself. In that vein, even the most dedicated comic book fan might not have noticed (or cared) that last Wednesday FX premiered another superhero series.

Created by novelist-turned-television-writer Noah Hawley (Fargo, The Unusuals), Legion tells the story of David Haller (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens), a mutant who finally begins to accept the reality of his extraordinary psychic abilities after years in a psychiatric facility where he has been treated for his (perhaps) misdiagnosed schizophrenia. After escaping from the institution, he finds himself hunted by a secret government agency, which is intent on capturing him and harnessing his abilities to its own ends, until he falls in with a ragtag team of equally maladjusted mutants. So far, so familiar: on these terms, Legion would appear to be telling a run-of-the-mill superhero origin story – one character's struggles, internal and external, with his still untamed super-abilities – but this is also where the familiarity ends. Legion is indeed, as Haller himself wishes for aloud in the show's first hour, something new.

Its main character comes from Marvel's deep well of print X-Men stories (David Haller was introduced in the mid-80s under the New Mutants title), but Legion is pointedly unstuck from both the increasing continuity burdens of Marvel Cinematic Universe (fourteen films, four television series, and counting!) and the numerous X-Men feature films. Though the print history of the character comes with a pedigree that would place him at the centre of the X-Men world, Legion tells a story that is literally in a universe of its own.

Dan Stevens and Aubrey Plaza in Legion.

Through the lens of this minor character plucked from the Marvel universe, Hawley (who wrote and directed the 90-minute pilot episode) has created an entirely original world. Lushly filmed, the show is simultaneously vintage and modern, so the viewer can be drawn into it even though it's unclear what decade the story is set in – 21st-century technology exists alongside Brutalist architecture, 60s-era interior design, costumes and hair styles, and depression-era tommy guns. The show's primary colours and shifting contexts are a continual reminder that we are likely always experiencing the story from within Haller's less than consistent sense of reality. Our perspective is almost exclusively Haller's – beginning with a beautiful opening montage that takes us from his seemingly idyllic suburban childhood to his inevitable breakdown (to the jaunty tune of The Who's "Happy Jack") – and those few moments where the story seems to adopt a more objective POV may be within his own reality as well, considering the nature of his cognitive abilities.

All of this comes with none of the sometimes exhausting claustrophobia of Mr. Robot, the most recent television to fully embrace an unreliable narrator. As masterful as the first season of Sam Esmail's show was, this conceit became unrelenting in its far weaker sophomore season – largely due to the lack of humour and humanity of the lead character. Stevens, alternately, is a refreshingly likable lead. With no hint of the narcissism and paranoia of Mr. Robot, his David Haller is wry and self-aware, and often the sanest (and most human) person on screen at any given moment. His illness, which seems real (whether its origins are circumstantial or chemical), is portrayed with a surprising sensitivity – and, despite his slippery sense of reality, he remains entirely attuned to the emotional lives of others. Stevens is even often genuinely adorable – especially in his chemistry with Rachel Keller, whose wide-eyed portrayal of fellow mutant and love interest Sydney Barrett is charmingly reminiscent of a slightly younger Gillian Jacobs. (Keller and fellow Legion cast member Jean Smart both turned in compelling performances for Hawley in the second season of Fargo.)

After decades of watching top-tier superheroes enjoy/suffer reboot after reboot on the big screen (every five years or so, another Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man franchise), it's thrilling to see Hollywood also embrace comics' fuller catalogue of stories and characters. Guardians of the Galaxy, still my personal favourite recent Marvel film, featured characters few would have heard of before the film's release. The same could be said of the characters at the centre of last two powerful entries in the Netflix/Marvel world, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, two shows which have already demonstrated the deepest potential not only of fantasy storytelling but of storytelling itself. We've only seen the first of the eight episodes of Legion's first season, an episode which posed far more questions than it answered. And I am hooked.

Legion airs on FX on Wednesday evenings. Its second episode airs on February 15.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.

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