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Josh Reviews Legion Season One

In much the same way that I never imagined a TV show based on the Coen Brothers’ magnificent film Fargo could possibly be any good, when I first read about Legion, a new TV show based on a minor character from the X-Men comics, I was not at all interested.  I’ve been burned by many previous super-hero shows, and with the X-Men movie franchise floundering without much direction, this looked like a cheap way to cash in on the X-Men name.  Well, Noah Hawley has proven me wrong twice now.  I will never doubt him again.  Just as Mr. Hawley’s reimagining of Fargo was an incredible success, so too has he created a rich, thrilling, wonderfully bizarre version of a super-hero show with Legion.  I loved pretty much every minute of it.

Based on story-lines written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz in the X-Men spin-off comic book The New Mutants from the 1980s (as well as some key issues written by Mr. Claremont in the main Uncanny X-Men book), Legion tells the story of David Haller, a young mutant with incredible psychic powers whose apparent schizophrenia makes him an enormous danger to the people around him and perhaps the entire world.  As the series begins, we see that David has been institutionalized, but he soon falls into the hands of a mysterious agency called Division Three.  They suspect what David will soon learn, that what he has always thought were his deep psychological problems might be a manifestation of his incredible mutant abilities.  David is rescued from Division Three by a group of fellow mutants, though neither they nor David realize that he had been hiding, deep within him, a powerful evil.

That brief plot description doesn’t begin to capture the head-spinning complex narrative that Mr. Hawley and his team have crafted, a joyously madcap journey through David’s past and present in which one can never be quite sure what is real and what is imaginary.  The entire structure of Legion has been designed to put the audience right into the middle of David’s madness and his broken mind.  Its fiendishly clever.  Watching the show becomes an incredibly fun exercise in attempting to unravel the tangled of mystery of David’s past.

Every inch of Legion has been crafted with great care.  The overall narrative, as I have just described, is an impressively clever piece of work.  Beyond that, time and again the show delights in zigging when you would expect it to zag.  We spend several episodes wondering about the mystery of Melanie (Jean Smart)’s frozen husband Oliver.  When we finally meet him, or at least his astral projection, its in the instantly iconic, and very funny, form of a lounge lizard inside a frozen ice cube.  I did not see that coming!  In the final episode, instead of launching into the confrontation are all awaiting, the show opens with an extended seven or eight minute prologue in which we get to know a character who had appeared, to that point, to be a conscience-less villain.  These are but two of my favorite examples of this delightfully unpredictable season of TV.

The show’s music is fantastic, giving the entire undertaking an engagingly funky vibe.  The whole show has a faintly seventies-eighties vibe to it (and I’m not just talking about the frozen-in-time Oliver).  The props, the costumes, the sets, all have a slightly retro feel that gives the show a unique look.  Personally, I read this as a nod to the comic book origins of this tale, that was created several decades ago.  Whatever the reason, it’s one more choice that makes Legion a unique television creation and helps raise it above the pack of so many mediocre super-hero television shows that have gone before.

I was not familiar with Dan Stevens before watching Legion. (I admit it, I have never seen Downton Abbey!!)  But I became an instant fan after watching his work here.  Mr. Stevens is terrific, creating an engaging and endearing central character who holds the audience’s attention through this labyrinthine story.  Even more importantly, he remains a sympathetic character even after we see David do some pretty terrible things about halfway through the season.

Even better is Aubrey Plaza, perfectly cast as… well… I’m not going to tell you anything about her character, because the mystery of who she really is becomes one of the series’ central questions.  I was a big fan of Ms. Plaza’s from Parks and Recreation, but she is working at a whole new level here.  She gets to cut loose and act all kinds of crazy, and she dominates the screen whenever she is in a scene. This is a killer performance, and a wonderfully unexpected interpretation of a character who could very easy have been depicted in a much straighter, and therefore more boring, manner.

I enjoyed the rest of the cast of mutants, although in the season’s short eight-episode length we don’t get to know these characters all that well.  There is Syd (Rachel Keller), who doesn’t like to be touched.  (Shades of Rogue.). There is Cary and Kerry (Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder), two very different people who share the same body.  (This twosome was the most unique creation of the show, and these are the two characters I am most eager to see further explored in a second season.).  Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) is able to enter people’s memories.  Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) is the leader of this group of mutants, though the show never reveals her mutant powers nor actually confirms that she IS a mutant.  The always great Ms. Smart brings gravitas to her role as the matron of this makeshift family, filling a role somewhat equivalent to what Patrick Stewart did as Professor Xavier in the X-Men films.  But we have less confidence that Melanie is making the right decisions.  Ms. Smart brings a compelling degree of melancholy and heartbreak to the role, aspects of the character that I would love to see further explored in the future.

Katie Aselton plays David’s sister Amy.  Ms. Aselton is terrific, and she really makes you feel for poor Amy who suffers a lot in the middle episodes of the season.  I wish the show hadn’t forgotten about her character in the final episode.  Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) steals every scene he’s in as the perennially calm, smooth-talking, but slightly befuddled Oliver Bird.  Hamish Linklater (seen in 42 and The Newsroom) is terrific as Division Three’s interrogator Clark, bringing nuance and heartbreak to what could have been a nothing role.  And Mackenzie Gray (who was Jax-Ur in Man of Steel) gives great henchman as the Eye, creating a memorably fearsome menace.

Running at only eight episodes in length, Legion does not overstay its welcome the way many of Marvel’s Netflix shows have done.  The season is a concentrated burst of madness, thrilling and perplexing.

If anything, it’s actually too short, as I would have loved to have seen the season extended by an episode or two in order to better flesh out the other mutant characters in Melanie’s group.  The show’s weakest point is the finale, which doesn’t provide as satisfactory a conclusion to the season’s story as I had hoped.  Nor does it end on an earth-shattering cliffhanger.  Instead, the season ends in a weird middle ground, with about the same type of cliffhanger ending as pretty much each of the seven episodes before it, in which some things are resolved while other twists are left “to be continued”.  It feels, after episode eight, that we should be getting an episode nine the very next week.

Other comments, and beware some SPOILERS ahead:

* I was very impressed by how closely the show wound up hewing to the backstory of David Haller as written by Chris Claremont in the comics.  I had assumed that the show would ignore the question of David’s parentage, but to my delight in episode seven they went there.  Oh did they go there!  For the eagle-eyed viewer, the clues were there to tell you exactly who David’s father really is.  I was delighted.

* But not AS delighted as I was in that same episode, in which they brought in Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King!!  I always loved this aspect of X-Men backstory, as written by Claremont.  I never ever expected to ever see this character depicted on screen, and so I was so happy that the show went there and brought this classic X-Men villain to life.  (While I’m on this subject, let me note that episode seven was a master class in how to unload a whole heck of a lot of backstory and exposition in a manner that remains creative and engaging.  I loved that whole blackboard sequence!  And it was fun to see Dan Stevens use his regular British accent.  Many other TV shows — cough Lost cough — could have taken notes at how skillfully Legion presented answers to many of the mysteries it had established.)

* I mentioned some disappointment with the season finale, above, and I’ll mention here that the other place where the finale disappointed me was in avoiding answering the question that had been building for the whole season, which is how could David and his friends possibly defeat the seemingly all powerful Shadow King?  I was so excited to see how they would solve this enigma, and then I was bummed that they sort if avoided doing that altogether.  Yes, they got the Shadow King out of David’s head, but the King is no less a threat now than it ever was.  I hope we get a satisfactory answer to this in season two.

* About halfway through the season, around when David massacred the staff of that Division Three headquarters in episode five, I had a delicious thought: what if this isn’t the origin story of a super-hero, but rather a super-villain?  The question as to whether the evil aspect of David’s personality was external (I was already starting to wonder about the Shadow King) or internal (perhaps just one facet of a split personality) was one of this season’s most interesting narrative questions.  Ultimately, they didn’t go the David-is-a-super-villain route, but I was satisfied by the way this worked out.

* I love Melanie’s coffee machine, a minor plot point that took on a more tragic dimension as the season unfolded.

* Legion had a terrific pilot episode, one of my favorites in recent memory.  It opened beautifully, with an incredible montage following David from birth to adulthood, and closed with a dazzling single-take escape from Division Three at the end of the episode.  Incredible stuff.  (And I didn’t even mention the dance sequence!!)

* I also have to highlight the great sequence in episode seven in which the show turned into a silent movie, with text screens to depict Aubrey Plaza’s dialogue.  A standout bit of weirdness in a fantastically kooky show.

* I commented above that most of the mutant characters who David meets weren’t that well developed.  The worst offender in this respect is Brad Mann as Rudy.  (I had to look up the character’s name.)  The show doesn’t establish him at all until the moment he meets his demise as the drooling man in the mental hospital.  At least, I think he met his demise.  Did he die smushed through the floor by you-know-who?  Or didn’t he?  I’m honestly not sure, and that’s a problem.  They needed to have spent more time with this character for us to have cared about him at all.

* I’d love to learn more about both Division Three and Melanie’s mutant hideaway.  Both organizations were sketched very thinly.  Who are these people?  What are their goals?  Where did they come from?  I’d like to see both sides of this human-versus-mutant conflict explored more deeply next season.  I would also love to have a better sense of where these stories fit into the broader X-Men universe.  Since it’s clear (to fans, at least), who David’s father is, that means this show exists in the universe of the X-Men.  I don’t need nor expect to see any of the X-Men characters from the films pop up, but a mention or two of the X-Men, or other heroes or villains, or maybe just a reference to an event from one of the X-Men films, would help place the events of Legion in a greater context that would, I think, be helpful as the show continues.

And the show will continue, thankfully, as a season two has already been announced.  I can’t wait.  I was dazzled by the creativity on display every moment of Legion.  This is very much a super-hero show, with lots of super-powered weirdness on display.  (Holy cow, we got almost an entire episode set inside the astral plane!!!  How much more comic book geekery could we possibly get??)  But the show didn’t limit itself to the familiar tropes or approaches of the genre.  Legion felt to me more like Mad Men than X-Men, and I loved that about the show.  It’s exciting to see how much fun a super-hero story can be when approached with such style and ingenuity.  I expect we are in for a decently long wait for Legion series two, but I will be counting the days.  I can’t wait to see where this story goes from here.

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