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TV Review: ‘Legion’ on FX, Starring Dan Stevens

Variety logo Variety 2/1/2017 Maureen Ryan
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There’s nothing wrong (and often quite a bit right) with TV’s mainstream, tried-and-true superhero modes, but those whose tastes lie in that direction may want to seek their cape fixes elsewhere: In look, style, and tone, “Legion” is not interested in an incremental update to what is offered by solid shows like “Supergirl” and “Luke Cage.” 

“Legion,” a Marvel-inspired drama from “Fargo” creator Noah Hawley, is not timid. It offers a jittery take on many of the genre’s familiar themes, and it hurls them together with such boldness that the entire concoction ends up carrying quite a kick. Like I said, it won’t be for everyone, but those who are pulled into the surreal, jagged orbit of this distinctive drama are likely to stay there for the full eight-episode run. It is, literally and figuratively, a trip — and it’s often an exhilarating one. 

Hawley’s work sometimes has a formal chilliness to it; it’s not unusual for him to spin his tales from an observational remove that can cause an audiences to respect the construction of a composition, a scene, or a character without fully engaging with those elements on an emotional or psychological level. Casting tends to ameliorate that tendency toward the clinical, and that was especially true in the second season of “Fargo,” in which Ted Danson, Bokeem Woodbine, and Kirsten Dunst were among the brilliant actors who gave their characters the kind of depth that made their struggles more poignant and immediate.

“Legion” doesn’t keep its lead character at a remove — if anything, it quite often puts the audience inside the point of view of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a man who has struggled with mental illness all his life. Or has he? Like many a lead character in comic books and fantasy fiction, Haller comes to find that what had been the defining challenge of his life may actually be an untapped source of strength and power. What if, instead of an institutionalized and heavily medicated man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he’s really a world-shaking hero?

Things do tend to tremble and rumble when Haller is around: When he’s overcome by strong emotions, objects begin to fly around the room, and he’s quite capable of inflicting great damage on his surroundings. “Legion” depicts these moments with highly stylized set pieces that bristle with so much kinetic energy that the screen practically vibrates. The show’s British Invasion style and mod fashions only add to the spiky and arresting aesthetic of “Legion,” which is what you’d get if “The Prisoner” and an early Pink Floyd album had a baby together.

Stevens’ performance is the glue that keeps “Legion” from flying apart: His vulnerability and his skill at transitioning between hopelessness and hope is continually impressive, as is the deft ways he indicates that a tender sliver of yearning optimism exists in David’s otherwise frightened and frustrated soul. Whatever brittleness exists in “Legion” is softened by Stevens’ exceptional presence and commitment to the character, and scenes from a budding romance between David and his new friend, Syd Barrett(Rachel Keller), provide moments of solace in a viewing experience that can otherwise be exceptionally intense. 

“Legion” is derived from the works of comics greats Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, and, underneath the show’s surface, the usual genre engines are present and accounted for: There’s a quest to escape bad people with a nebulous agenda, a hero who must recognize and hone his powers before he can join the battle with the forces of evil, a wise elder who guides and instructs the new recruit, a wild-card sidekick, and a love interest with her own agenda and challenges. “Legion” doesn’t go too far afield from its origins: Like any good superhero franchise, it has explosions, witty quips, and cool clothes.

The show’s homages come thick and fast, and they aren’t especially subtle — not that they need to be; spotting the references can be half the fun. David is housed in the “Clockworks” mental-health facility, where the uniforms often come in shades of orange; Syd is named after a founding member of Pink Floyd; and there are echoes of Dumbledore and Charles Xavier in Jean Smart’s mentor character, Melanie Bird. At one point, members of the ensemble drop everything for a dance number that looks equally influenced by the French New Wave, the Who’s “Quadrophenia,” and “A Hard Day’s Night.” And it works.

Peel back all the influences and sturdy genre tropes, and on one level, “Legion” is yet another show about a middle-class white man with anger issues. The roots of David’s rage are vague, but its manifestations are not; without giving away too much about his visions, what he sees when he takes the lid off his repressed emotions is often deeply troubling. The challenge of “Legion” will be to make David’s quest for wholeness more than the sum of its flashy and often captivating parts. But the humane core of the drama offers a reason to hope for the best.

“Legion” doesn’t just posit that being different is OK, it makes it seem preferable and downright cool. Right now, our world seems decidedly hostile to weirdoes, outcasts, and rebels, and for most thinking Americans, staying comfortably numb isn’t a realistic or viable option. It’s heartening that the twitchy mosaic that is “Legion” comes down hard on the side of the misfits and those who embrace their flaws and passions, rather than on the side ofthose who ruthlessly suppress what is strange and nameless.

“Why can’t you have what everyone else has?” David’s concerned sister asks at one point. The bracing early episodes of “Legion” ask if what’s inside David’s mind is actually better than that.

For a feature on the origins and making of “Legion,” check out Daniel Holloway’s story on the drama. For a podcast conversation about “Legion,” “Riverdale” and “24: Legacy,” go here.

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