Let’s get the high praise out of the way first: it’s rare for a television pilot to feel as fresh and weird and fully formed as Legion, which feels more like the first 70 minutes of a particularly daring X-Men movie than the first chapter of an ongoing series airing on FX. There is a distinctive personality on display here, a carefully modulated tone that folds horror and dark comedy and mindfuckery into the typical superhero structure. It doesn’t shatter the mold, but it leaves a giant crack in it – I literally have no idea what to expect from the next episode and man-oh-man, is that a nice feeling.
And it looks like we’ll be covering Legion on a weekly basis from here on out, with all other spoiler reviews arriving the morning after the new episode airs. Hi. Like the show itself, these reviews aren’t going to follow a rigid structure. We’re just going to pick up the threads of interest and run with them until we can figure out exactly what kind of show we’re dealing with here.
Who Is David Haller?
Of all the potential X-Men comic book characters to get their own television show, David “Legion” Haller can’t help but feel like an off-kilter choice. Your average television watcher (and your average viewer of comic book movies and shows) probably isn’t familiar with him and that’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have to introduce him to the masses and explain why they need to care about his problems. On the other hand, the lack of the public’s familiarity with him gives creator and showrunner Noah Hawley a flexibility you won’t find in many big screen superhero outings, where the template is tested and expected and in the case of the recent core X-Men movies, painfully boring.
The pilot for Legion leaves certain aspects of David a deliberate question mark. For those average TV viewers, that’s the mystery at hand: what are his powers, how do they manifest, and when will he learn how to control them? For comic book fans, there’s a different question at hand: how will the show adapt, and will they tone down, one of the weirder characters in Marvel comics? Because the live-action version of David looks nothing like his comic book counterpart, with his very silly, very tall flat-top haircut, the only immediate connection between the two versions is how his superpowers manifest from mental illness. The exact nature of the connection between the voices in his head and the incredible powers he cannot control remains unexplored when the credits roll on “Chapter 1” and for that reason, we’re going to hold off on diagnosing his mutant skill set – that may prove to be too much of a spoiler, even for a so-called “spoiler review.”
Besides, Jean Smart is here and she’s surely going to start explaining things in the next episode. Surely.
A Cast of “Crazies”
It was inevitable that Dan Stevens was eventually going to get around to playing a superhero – it’s what all the up-and-coming actors are doing these days. And thankfully, Legion gives Stevens plenty to chew on, letting him do dramatic and funny and just a little bit of badass. That little bit is very important here, as David Haller is no superhero. He’s falling apart. He’s a mess. We first meet his grown-up self in an institution where he lives under constant observation and can’t even accept a cupcake from his visiting sister. To Stevens’ credit (and to the show’s), David’s illness isn’t portrayed as sexy or cool or even mysterious, as is often the trend with shows built around “crazy” characters. His life is all about navigating uncontrollable emotions and overcoming obstacles that make basic socialization difficult. Stevens is a good looking guy, but this may be one of the least sexy characters to ever sit center stage in a comic book property. And he owns it.
Stevens’ performance is the highlight here, but “Chapter 1” does surround him with a promising supporting cast. Rachel Keller‘s Sydney “Syd” Barrett (whose name is a cheeky Pink Floyd reference) leaves a strong impression as a potential love interest. Katie Aselton‘s Amy Haller gives us a “normal” person to act as an audience surrogate (and her quickly removing every sharp implement from David’s basement room after his latest telekinetic outburst is a much-needed laugh at that point in the episode). Most promising is Aubrey Plaza‘s Lenny Busker, who meets a violent end about halfway through “Chapter 1” but lives on as some kind of psychic echo within David’s mind. Plaza’s natural deadpan is perfect for this material and the thought of her serving as a Greek chorus to a troubled mutant is an enticing thought.