The Stylish FX Series 'Legion' Suffers From A Split Personality

Feb 8, 2017
Originally published on February 8, 2017 9:18 am

FX's Legion is a superhero TV show that resists admitting it is one.

Which is both the most satisfying and frustrating thing about it.

Here's the setup: David Haller is a well-meaning guy who hears voices in his head. It's driven him to drugs, occasionally criminal behavior and a suicide attempt. (Alert TV fans will recognize the actor playing David as Dan Stevens, who was blue-eyed hunk Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey).

Stevens cops a twitchy earnestness — and a pretty good American accent — as David, who has lived for years in a mental institution, but is ready to try life on the outside. We see him endure a visit from his sister and meet a cute fellow inmate whom he grows to like very much, even though she hates to be touched.

Turns out, the voices in David's head belong to other people. He's a mutant who can hear others' thoughts and control matter with his mind.

The question that remains for David and the rest of the characters in Legion: Has he been fooled into believing he was schizophrenic by his unusual powers, or is he mentally ill in addition to being one of the most powerful mutants around?

This is FX's first collaboration with Marvel Television, and it takes place in the same fictional universe as the X-Men franchise. It takes some kind of stones to partner with the leading purveyor of comic-book-fueled entertainment and create a show which downplays its roots in the superhero world so thoroughly.

As the first episode progresses, we realize David is in the clutches of evil government guys who may know more about his powers than he does.

It's a story we've seen many times before in movies like E.T. and Netflix's surprise hit Stranger Things: An innocent with amazing abilities flees a brutal institution. Hopefully, David won't have to escape on a flying bicycle.

But Legion the TV show is created by Noah Hawley, the mind behind FX's amazing adaptation of the movie Fargo. So the predictable nature of its plotting is often balanced by powerful visuals and unorthodox storytelling.

In one scene, David destroys a kitchen with his mind, flinging utensils, food and appliances around in a detailed, slow-motion shower that the viewer — and several characters — can walk through like a 3-D display.

It's a stunning sequence, in line with the show's bold, seriously stylish visual sense. But it also looks a lot like "freeze frame" 3-D sequences seen in lots of commercials — and in films like The Matrix.

Similarly, the pilot's opening sequence shows David's struggles with his powers, depicting his slide from a smiling kid winning soccer trophies to a teen who blows out the windows of a police car with his mind, as The Who song "Happy Jack" plays as soundtrack.

The scene is awfully reminiscent of the opening to another superhero movie, scored by another rueful '60s tune: Watchmen. (That film's credits were set to the Bob Dylan tune "The Times They Are a-Changin' ".)

Unlike Fargo, which can sometimes feel like it is observing characters from a distance, Legion often puts the viewer squarely inside David's head.

But because of his mental issues, sometimes we're not sure what we're seeing. Is it a memory, or something happening to him now, or a vision of something happening elsewhere?

That's the same kind of confusing "is it real or isn't it" storytelling used in shows like Mr. Robot and Westworld.

In the comics, the character Legion is the son of X-Men leader Charles Xavier. He's a powerful mutant with multiple personalities, and each one boasts a different power. Hawley seems to have charted a different course for his TV version, though I hold out hope that we may see Professor X on the small screen this season or next.

FX's Legion seems to want it both ways: to draw comic book fans with a story set in the X-Men world, while avoiding some of the classic elements of the genre for people who don't usually watch superhero movies and TV shows.

Another new show, NBC's Powerless, attempts a similar move, building a workplace comedy around the non-super people who have to cope with the smashed buildings and derailed trains left behind when superheroes clash with villains.

It's a tricky dance these shows are trying, because most of these stories are ultimately about the hero pulling it together enough to beat the bad guys. And you only need to look at Fox's tired, Batman-less drama Gotham to see what can happen on a superhero show without the hero.

Over its first three episodes, Legion seems very good, but not quite great. It's a visually impressive program with a narrative style that just might revolutionize the superhero series on TV.

But first, it has to elevate its core story above the kind of plots we've already seen so many times before. And it wouldn't hurt to just admit it's a show about superheroes, already.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tonight on FX is the debut of a TV show called "Legion." It's about a super-powered man who may or may not be mentally ill. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it has the feel of a superhero show for people who don't really like superhero shows.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Legion" is set in the Marvel universe inhabited by the X-Men, but there are no capes, no costumes and the mutants we see in the first few episodes use their powers sparingly. It's a superhero show that resists admitting it is one. And that's both the most satisfying and frustrating thing about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")

DEGGANS: Here's the setup - David Haller hears voices in his head. It's driven him to drugs and a suicide attempt. David is plagued with a twitchy earnestness by Dan Stevens, who TV fans might recognize as Matthew Crawley from "Downton Abbey." But after years in an institution, David says he's feeling restless during a birthday visit from his sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")

KATIE ASELTON: (As Amy Haller) So do they let you throw a little party here, or?

DAN STEVENS: (As David Haller) Yeah. They rent the furniture. We get a DJ.

ASELTON: (As Amy Haller) Really?

STEVENS: (As David Haller) No. We do get better drugs, though.

ASELTON: (As Amy Haller) Really?

STEVENS: (As David Haller) No. It's just like - 260th Thursday as a passenger on the cruise ship Mental Health.

DEGGANS: It turns out David is actually telling the story about his sister to a man he doesn't know is an evil government henchman. And when that henchmen reports to his boss, he reveals that the voices in David's head just might be the thoughts of other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")

HAMISH LINKLATER: (As The Interrogator) Well, he believes he's mentally ill. But at the the same time, part of him knows that the power is real.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And are we clear on the scope and nature of this power?

LINKLATER: (As The Interrogator) No. But if the readings are right, he may be the most powerful mutant that we have ever encountered.

DEGGANS: It's a story we've seen many times before - an innocent with amazing abilities flees a brutal institution - from movies like "E.T." to Netflix's surprise hit "Stranger Things." Hopefully David won't escape in a flying bicycle, but "Legion" the TV show is created by Noah Hawley, the mind behind FX's amazing adaptation of the movie "Fargo." So it's got some surprises up its sleeve.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")

STEVENS: (As David Haller) Oh.

(SOUNBITE OF DISHES SHATTERING)

DEGGANS: That's a scene where David destroys a kitchen with his mind, flinging utensils, food and appliances around in a detailed slow motion shower the viewer walks through like a 3-D display. It's a stunning sequence similar to visuals in movies like "The Matrix," but given a unique bold spin here. It's also a memory. Like David, viewers are sometimes not quite sure what's happening to him now, what is a memory or what he's sensing that may actually be happening elsewhere.

It's the same kind of is-it-real-or-isn't-it storytelling used in shows like "Mr. Robot" and "Westworld," and it can be confusing. "Legion" walks a careful balance. David must sort through dark secrets locked in his mind to control his powers, which sounds like a classic superhero story. But a lot of it is about David's interior struggles with mental illness and his love for a fellow mutant who he can't touch.

This program wants it both ways - to draw comic book fans with a story set in the X-Men world while avoiding some of the classic elements of the genre for people who don't usually watch superhero movies or TV shows. So far "Legion" is very good, but not quite great. It's a visually impressive program with a narrative style that just might revolutionize the superhero series on TV, that's if it can elevate its core story above the kind of plots we've already seen so many times before. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS SONG, "DRAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.