‘Legion’ breaks away from usual comic storylines
February 23, 2017
Filed under Features
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The new television show “Legion,” which airs on FX on Thursdays at 10 p.m., offers incomparable narrative and visual dynamism. For a while, it felt like TV shows were constricted by their plot-oriented focus in comparison to movies. However, “Legion” makes an argument that the opposite is true. By using a nonlinear approach to a story that takes place over an extended period of time, there is a sense that “Legion” can go anywhere.
On paper, “Legion” does not seem like it would be a remarkable show. It is another superhero product — Legion is a lesser known character in the X-Men universe — and it is yet another take on a character with extraordinary abilities related to their personal trauma. The first episode establishes the main character as David Haller, played by Dan Stevens, a diagnosed schizophrenic who has telekinetic powers. Rather than showing the character’s pain and power from an outside perspective, “Legion” does everything it can to get in the protagonist’s head and expose its viewers to Haller’s thoughts and behaviors. Like “Mr. Robot,” we are inside an unreliable narrator’s head for the majority of the time.
This television series is set apart by its dedication to telling this story from as internal a perspective as possible. While “Mr. Robot” always took place inside its main character’s head, there were well-established real world stakes regardless of the protagonist’s unreliability. In “Legion,” the outside world hardly feels established at all. Rather, as a result of existing within a larger superhero universe, it feels like “Legion” is driven inward. This inward perspective functions, as it often does, as a synonym for strange.
The show’s digressions into Haller’s headspace have allowed over the course of the first two episodes an obese, “yellow-eyed” devil, a horrific children’s book and an impromptu dance number. It is all very colorful and quick. The first episode, especially, moves incredibly fast. Not only does it establish Haller’s character, but it also kills off his closest friend, gives him an awkward romance and breaks him out of his mental institution. By the end of the episode, it almost feels like too much.
The second episode, however, slows things down and sets the course for the rest of the show. That is not to say that it loses its verve, just that it reorients it in a different direction. The second episode becomes an extended therapy session for Haller’s character. Therapy might sound boring, but the way they do it at the mutant facility in “Legion” is not. The characters use technology and superpowers to stand outside and inside Haller’s memories in a way that is reminiscent of the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Haller and the other mutants cannot alter memories as they happen, but they are still involved and constantly analyzing them.
It feels like “Legion” is always going to be something of an origin story. The world outside of Haller’s head does not feel developed enough to break away from the show’s intimate relationship with Haller’s past. For now, however, that is not a problem. Watching Haller and his mutant friends travel through the corners of Haller’s psyche is, at the very least, compelling on a visceral level.
A potential problem with delving so far into the head of someone suffering from mental health issues is that the viewing experience could either become too painful or too much fun, and therefore not representative. So far, “Legion” has struck that balance well, borrowing from various genres to keep things varied enough to be fun, but not so fun as to distract from the actual subject matter of the show. Among scenes that focus on comedy or action, there are flashes of horror. In the latest episode, a moment with Aubrey Plaza’s usually hilarious character takes a turn toward the horrific. The show does not make clear why it happens, but it is suggestive of a more disturbing relationship between her and Haller.
“Legion” is loaded with transitions. The future success of the show will be dependent on how organic those transitions feel. It is too early to tell if, at times, “Legion” is just showing off or really going somewhere meaningful. What is clear though, is that the show is committed to telling an intensely internal story using the framework of a comic book story.
While it will almost certainly be the best comic book related TV show that comes out this year, what makes it interesting is that it does not seem to care that much about establishing a conventional comic book world. Like its protagonist, “Legion” is too caught up in its more unique preoccupations to go anywhere normal after two episodes. Hopefully, it can find a way to maintain that.