So… What did I just witness? Because this was just plain bonkers.
Legion comes from noted writer/director/author Noah Hawley, who also created FX’s adaptation of the classic Coen Brothers movie, Fargo, which I’ve gone on the record as saying is one of the best shows on TV. Legion is (loosely?) based on an X-Men spinoff series, and stars Dan Stevens (The Guest) as David Haller, a mental patient who (spoiler) has some serious superpowers.
Fargo is already one of the more stylistically ambitious and “out-there” TV shows in memory, with suggestive audio and visual choices, and story choices including the appearance of a UFO in a seemingly traditional crime thriller. And yet, somehow, Legion makes Fargo look downright tame. In the process, the pilot for Legion also throws out any TV playbook we’re used to, hewing closer to an indie film.
While it’s likely that there will be some more structure to Legion in future episodes (it’s necessary for Legion to successfully function as a TV show), this pilot is one of the most out-there, constantly featuring moments and imagery that makes you question what is happening, what the characters are (or believe themselves to be) experiencing, and what, if anything is real. This is not TV to be watched in the background – this is TV meant as a full sensory experience, complete with a mid-episode dance number.
Legion offers a visual palette unlike anything else on TV, with colors, costumes, makeup, sets, and visual effects that cohere to make you question anything and everything you see. Even small decisions, like how to style a character’s hair, or what kind of shoes they wear, seem like places where conscious decisions have been made.
Speaking of decisions, the actors in Legion get to make some interesting choices; in The Guest, Dan Stevens played another unhinged character; here, he dials it up to the next level, going fully bug-eyed and psychotic, a sight to behold. He has the capacity to go small as well, and when he puts on his devil-like grin you can’t help but feel on his “side”.
Starring opposite Stevens is Aubrey Plaza, as Lenny, his psych ward companion who makes the kinds of snide, dark comments that we came to expect from her character on Parks and Recreation, April Ludgate; Lenny, however, is the most extreme version of this character, played with an edge of gleeful insanity that likely explains the character’s presence in a mental institution.
The final main character of the pilot is played by Rachel Keller (who also appeared in the second season of Fargo). She plays a character named Sydney Barrett. As in, Syd Barrett, the founding member of Pink Floyd who notoriously left the band and struggled with mental illness for much of his life. She has a little less to do in the pilot, but she so effectively communicates the emotions she experiences, and given certain things we find out about her character in the pilot, it seems like there will be plenty of opportunity for her to go “big” in her performance.
Also featured in the pilot is noted TV character actor Hamish Linklater, who is a detective of some kind and who gets the dubious honor of interviewing a clearly somewhat unstable super-powered mutant; although it’s a minor role, he manages to simultaneously appear cool, calm, and in control, while also frightened out of his wits by a mind that he doesn’t full understand; it’s a masterful performance.
Even before this pilot premiered, it was clear that Legion was going to be a TV show to watch out for, simply based on the pedigree of its creator, as well as the acting talent involved. After seeing this pilot episode, any expectations I had have been more than met. It’s too soon, after one episode, to say that Legion is the best show on TV, but if it’s able to maintain this level of quality going forward, it will be hard to argue otherwise.