Spoilers for Legion’s Pilot Await You Below
Legion’s pilot, which just premiered on FX last night, is a triumph of style over substance, and I mean that in the best way possible. As has been noted in just about every other review I’ve read, the actual story on display is boilerplate sci-fi, with a powerful, chosen one-esque central character (David Haller, played by Dan Stevens) incarcerated in a government-run mental institution which is trying to convince him his powers are but a figment of his fractured mind. So incapable of telling the difference between fantasy and reality is he that when similarly powered individuals arrive to save him he questions whether or not they are real. It’s almost disappointing that the pilot ends with a definitive answer to this question, putting to bed any notion that this all might simply be happening inside of David’s mind. Our Neo indeed goes down the Rabbit Hole, and what happens next in this mutant v. human fight he’s wandered into remains to be told in the seven episodes left in the show’s first season.
However, this overly familiar story is told in a very unfamiliar way, particularly considering that not only is this technically an X-Men TV show (David is Professor Xavier’s son in the comics) that looks nothing like the movies it also looks unlike any other comic book show we’ve ever seen before.
Sure, we’ve had game changers in the comic book game before. To name a few:
Arrow was initially the gritty rebuke to the unceasing campiness of latter era Smallville, and made the idea of a comic book TV show seem respectable.
Daredevil and Jessica Jones delivered borderline R-Rated content and emotional complexity, proving themselves to be not only more compelling than their contemporaries on broadcast TV but also arguably better than certain big budget comic book movies (they at least have better villains).
Those shows advanced the genre; Legion blows it up entirely and remakes it as a weird kaleidoscope of Wes Anderson and Bob Fosse-inspired imagery married to non-linear storytelling with an abbreviated Bollywood dance number thrown in for good measure because why not.
It’s not hard to understand why or how show creator Noah Hawley (a novelist turned show runner with Fargo) came about his artistic choices for Legion. This is a show centered around a schizophrenic man or at least a man whose immense psychic abilities are so reality-threatening that it behooves those in power to convince him he’s crazy. As such, the show itself, or at least the pilot, needs to feel schizophrenic, mirroring David’s mental condition.
So, group therapy sessions jump back and forth between an interrogation in which David is the chief suspect in some ill-defined incident involving his kind-of girlfriend in the institution (Syd, played by Rachel Keller) and kind-of best friend (Lenny, played by Aubrey Plaza). WTF, dream-like imagery we glimpse in passing is revealed 10 minutes later to be part of a very important flashback. Time jumps, slow-motion and single take action sequences abound. Incidental music practically lifted straight out of Stranger Things keeps us completely unnerved. There’s even an Inception-like moment where someone attempts to communicate with David through one of his memories.
And did I already mention the Bollywood sequence? I did? Well, now here’s a picture from it:
Similar to Netflix’s The OA, Legion’s near movie-length pilot doesn’t even flash its title card or begin its opening credits until the very end of the episode, suggesting Hawley hasn’t so much designed this as a TV series but instead as an 8-9 hour movie. What we’ve seen in the pilot is like the first half of The Matrix. That doesn’t mean David’s now going to learn kung fu in the next part of this movie-posing-as-a-TV-series, but something’s bound to happen once he realizes what he can do with his powers.
And the critics, who’ve seen the first three episodes for review purposes, are besides themselves with praise. IndieWire had no problem calling the pilot “a masterpiece.” Vulture is so hooked that they’ll keep watching even if this all falls apart, “The whole thing is so aesthetically fresh that I could see myself continuing to watch it even if it suddenly became dumb as hell.” Vox thinks Legion “rises above its peers by presenting a more difficult picture of humanity, power, and heroism. It isn’t hopeful or neat, and that’s what sets it apart.” Deadline took it even further, declaring Legion to be a stunning tribute to the ever-increasing artistic possibilities of TV:
Legion is an artfully conceived and executed rule-breaking series that you must actually see to believe, as they say. It is also a mind-bending, creepily paranoia-inducing and sometimes Clockwork Orange homage with a killer soundtrack that challenges not just the superhero genre but also the format of TV and reality itself.
So, yeah, people are just a tad more enthusiastic about this than they were for [picking random superhero show] Legends of Tomorrow when it premiered last year. But is this praise warranted? Is Legion really this good, or is it just so remarkably different from everything else in the superhero game right now that it stands out, coming off as it does like a Terry Gilliam-directed superhero movie turned into a TV show?
I’m at a comparative disadvantage to answer that because I’ve only seen the pilot. It’s a good pilot, a thoroughly well-executed mind-fuck with one stand-out sequence followed by another and another and so on. In the way that superhero shows can often be reduced to those issues which they speak to metaphorically, e.g., Supergirl is about sisterhood and women in the work place, Jessica Jones is about the psychological trauma of rape, Luke Cage is about the black experience in New York, Legion is clearly about mental health and the shaky road to recovery. Unlike the X-Men movies, there probably won’t be any MLK vs. Malcolm X-style rhetoric here. Instead, it’ll be about one man’s journey toward sanity, yet the pilot left me feeling as if I had just watched a fantastic experimental movie, not the start to a TV series with fully realized characters. What I saw was indeed pretty masterful, but masterpiece? Let’s wait to see how the season plays out before going that far with it.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
A BRIEF NOTE FOR ANY COMIC BOOK READERS
In the comics, David has dissociative identity disorder, with each of his personalities yielding their own power, but that is not the case on Legion. Consider yourself warned.