“I have to know. Is this… is this real?”
So wonders David Haller, the hero of Legion, FX’s new X-Men spin-off series, and it’s a question he asks, or is asked, over and over throughout the show’s pilot episode, which debuts next Wednesday night at 10pm ET.
David, you see, has spent most of his life being told that he’s mentally ill, and has been medicated accordingly. But as the series begins, he starts encountering mysterious people who suggest he’s perfectly healthy, and that what psychiatrists mistook for a disorder was actually the manifestation of David’s vast mutant psychic powers. So as David (Dan Stevens) toggles back and forth between the two explanations for the voices in his head, he understandably keeps wondering if any of this — his powers, his would-be girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller), best friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), and the various alleged forces of light and dark — actually exists.
David’s question is also one I found myself asking often as I raced through the stunning debut episode and the two wonderful hours of TV that follow it. Legion is so strange, so idiosyncratic, so outside the norms of anything we’ve come to expect from modern comic book adaptations, on the big screen or small, that it was hard not to wonder if I was just imagining the whole thing, or if it was an elaborate, expensive prank perpetrated by FX and Fargo creator Noah Hawley, here adapting a relatively obscure X-character introduced in the ’80s by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz.
The Marvel films and movies — both the ones produced directly by Marvel and the ones that come from outside studios that hold rights to certain characters (like Fox with the X-Men, though Fox brought Marvel in to help make Legion) — are such factory-designed products that even the best ones only deviate slightly from one another to reveal the personalities of the people who made them. You might note a particularly Joss Whedon-y bit of banter in Avengers, or recognize a Community alum in one of the Russo brothers’ Captain America movies, but these projects are designed to prioritize the brand over the individual, and to make each franchise hospitable to visitors from all the other ones, so that it won’t feel weird if Falcon has a cameo in Ant-Man’s film, or if Spider-Man swings into the middle of a civil war among Avengers.
In the comics, David is related to a significant X-Men member. These early Legion episodes offer no clues as to whether the TV version has similar family ties, but the show is so tonally unlike any of the films that it’s hard to imagine Hugh Jackman or Michael Fassbender wandering in to give David a hug. This isn’t X-Men being done for TV, the way Agents of SHIELD is so often presented as the budget Avengers, but more like what would happen if some exasperated executive went to see Wes Anderson, or a French New Wave director — or, for that matter, the man who somehow turned the Coen brothers’ seemingly singular Fargo into the inspiration for one of TV’s greatest current series — threw a typically bizarre Sienkiewicz page from New Mutants on their desk, and left in an exasperated huff, muttering, “We don’t know what the hell this is or what to do with it. Have fun.”
Hawley, whose only previous professional directing credit was a season 2 Fargo episode, is behind the camera for the super-sized Legion pilot (without commercials, it’s 68 minutes; FX will air it in a 90-minute timeslot), and it’s a stylistic tour de force, telekinetically throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the screen to convey the way that David experiences the world.
We open with a series of beautiful tableau images of David as he grows from peaceful newborn to troubled young man, scored to The Who’s “Happy Jack” — one of several British Invasion tunes, fitting for a show whose visual aesthetic seems to be “What might a Londoner from the 1960s imagine the future would look like?” From there, we’re bouncing back and forth through David’s good times and bad, including a lengthy stint in a mental hospital where he meets Syd — with whom he has a sweet but chaste romance because she can’t abide being touched — and an interrogation by a mysterious government agent who knows much more about David than he lets on. The cutting between past and present — or between fantasy and reality — is lightning quick and intentionally disorienting, and every time Hawley allows you to briefly feel like you’re on solid footing, he literally turns the camera upside down, or stages a musical number to Serge Gainsbourg’s “Pauvre Lola,” or switches up the aspect ratio from scene to scene (like occasional glimpses of David’s worried sister Amy, played by Katie Aselton, as if through a viewfinder).
This all threatens to come off as wildly over-directed and self-induglent, yet Hawley’s choices as writer and director instead thrillingly feel all of a piece, and the best way he could capture David’s confusion and potentially fragile sanity. The next two episodes, directed by Fargo and Mad Men veteran Michael Uppendahl, are a bit more reserved — and, as a result, a bit less electrifying — but even they manage their own impressive flourishes, like a device where David gets to revisit his own memories, only to discover that his mind is reluctant to share all the details.
A lot of what makes Legion work is the same playfulness that Hawley brought to Fargo. There are big questions here about mental health, eugenics, the fate of humanity, blah blah blah, but moment to moment, scene to scene, there is a spring in the step of the show and its characters. It’s the kind of series where the imposing Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) — the closest thing Legion has to a Professor X type — uses a coffee machine that offers parables (in the voice of Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) while it’s brewing up her morning espresso, and where super powers are often revealed in a casual fashion that ‘s far more unsettling and impressive than if they were presented with the usual fanfare. Even when the show brushes up against tradition — a massive escape scene done as a minute-plus single take, with powers being hurled around indiscriminately — it does it in a way that looks like nothing else from the superhero genre, and that leaves ambiguity about exactly what’s happening, and why.
Stevens, all but unrecognizable from his days as dashing Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey, makes an instantly sympathetic and compelling hero, equal parts confused straight man and unwitting bringer of chaos. The great Keller (like Smart, an import from Fargo season 2, where she played Jeffrey Donovan’s rebellious daughter) offers a similarly complicated blend: Syd is a woman who wants to see the world through happy and innocent eyes (when we first meet her in the mental hospital, she’s wearing her hair in pigtails), but there’s a dark past underneath that she reveals in careful, controlled trickles that bring non-powered complications to the love story at the heart of Legion. Plaza plays Lenny with the kind of leering glee that suggests she gets to watch this show along with us whenever she’s not on camera, and the show shares Fargo‘s gift for endearingly weird and expository character names, whether a villain with a creepy eye known only as The Eye (Mackenzie Gray), an ally of Melanie’s called Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), and a pair of seemingly unrelated good guys (played by Bill Irwin, at his most mellifluous, and Amber Midthunder) with the identical-sounding names of Cary and Kerry Loudermilk.
The first episode is such a mind trip that later chapters risk seeming tame and conventional, but Legion continues to have many tricks up its bespoke sleeves. The either/or question about who and what David is proves more complicated than both sides expect, and if anything, the later episodes (the third in particular) are even more disturbing as Melanie and friends dig deep into exactly what makes him tick, and how dangerous that might be to all of them.
It’s a delight, existing so far outside the mold of recent superhero adaptations in the 2010s that it couldn’t see the mold even with telescopic vision. It’s a comic book show likely to be as appealing to people who have no interest in comic books as to those who can name David’s famous relative without Googling, if not more, and it’s easily the most exciting new series this young year in TV has offered so far.
Is this real? God, I hope so.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com