By Noah Harper
TV is usually described as a writer’s medium. Often, it is the visual components of shows—the cinematography, set design, art direction—that are the least interesting parts. What’s usually compelling is the story, the characters and the plot—but we don’t primarily watch television to see how it redefines serialized visual storytelling.
Most TV shows feature rather drab, standard coverage. One of my favorite shows on right now, “The Americans,” is a perfect example: The show’s drab cinematography and visual style aren’t its selling point—it’s the finely-crafted story. Generally, the visual components in television are the weakest link.
However, “Legion” takes advantage of the fact that television is comprised of a series of moving images, each an opportunity to innovate the medium. “Legion” is the second TV series created by Noah Hawley, of “Fargo” fame. Beginning as a novelist, Hawley published five books before transitioning to television, first writing for “Bones” and the “The Unusuals.” In 2014, his reimagining of “Fargo” premiered, and critics were skeptical at first—did the world really need a TV show based on the 1996 cult classic film? Apparently it did. “Fargo” won over critics (96 currently on Metacritic) by doing its own thing, telling new stories set in the Coen brothers’ comically-macabre, upper-midwest, but nailing a similar tone to that of the original.
“Legion” is equally Hawley-esque, in that it takes what might seem uninspired and does something entirely new with it. At the point of release, was anyone really clamoring for more superhero TV shows? It seemed like Netflix and the CW already had that covered. And yes, on the surface, Hawley’s new show is about a superhero—in the loosest sense of the word. In the X-Men comics, the protagonist, David Haller, is the illegitimate son of Professor X (Patrick Stewart in the movies). But while that might be the initial selling point of the show, it’s definitely not what it’s really about.
“Legion” uses its super-premise as a novel way to delve into regular-world problems. Our protagonist is troubled, wracked by what doctors tell him is schizophrenia. But as it turns out, David also possesses incredible telepathic and telekinetic abilities, perhaps the source of his illness. The only problem is that he might be simultaneously schizophrenic and super. David is confused by what is going on, unable to tell the difference between what is real and what is fake, and the show is constructed in a way that is analogous to the protagonist’s perception of things—we see the world the way he does.
The pilot episode is gripping, a visually rich cornucopia of colors and imagery mostly set in a Kubrickian insane asylum, also reminiscent of “Twelve Monkeys.” Both David and the viewer are trying to figure out what’s going on, through the filter of David’s addled mind. Time bends and warps. We see flashes of the weird and unsettling: a green-painted man blending in with some foliage, a surprisingly-good dance number, and a grotesque, exorbitantly fat man, the “Devil with Yellow Eyes,” that sporadically haunts these bursts of insanity. It’s “Twin Peaks” with a comic book vibe.
TV is a relational medium. Unlike film, in which we don’t usually get a second installment, we are able to develop relationships with the shows that we see week to week. We grow attached to these worlds, and the more vivid and vibrant they are, the better. “Legion’s” immaculate production design and avant-garde visual style make it the most interesting show on television right now. So far, it has been serially engaging and innovative in a way that TV often overlooks.
However, visual flare (no matter how good), and world-building are not enough to keep a show compelling for a ten-plus episode season—such as with HBO’s “Westworld.” Writing, the meat and potatoes of television, must be sufficiently strong in order to support the show.
Here, too, Hawley has things covered. If the first three episodes of “Legion” are any indication, there is definitely substance to the show. David’s character is compelling. His dual, inextricably intertwined conditions of schizophrenia and mental superpowers provide an apt allegory for regular, non-super mental illness. The show has been developing this therapy theme, in a way that only a world full of people with mutant superpowers can: Thanks to superpowers, we get to explore David’s memories, work through his problems, much like one in actual therapy would—minus the telepathic superpowers, of course. David has to participate in “Mind Work” and “Talk Work,” in order to explore and heal the incongruities of his mind.
The aforementioned format is what the second and third episodes take. David has been rescued from a shady paramilitary force, and is hiding out at this secret facility in the forest. Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) is the leader of this installation, which seems to be a refuge for people in predicaments similar to David’s. Dr. Smart and her team are slowly analyzing David’s mind, trying to figure out (like we, the audience, are), what’s going on inside his head.
These second and third episodes seem, well, more stable. David talks to people, and coherent storylines are given time to develop. While the craziness of the pilot is lovely and alluring, I’m glad Hawley and Co. had the foresight to know that too much anarchic insanity can become unwieldy, especially when the audience is given just as little information as the protagonist is. They have found a more stable way to develop the craziness. David’s therapy provides a foundational format for the show to build itself around.
For those looking for a more traditional superhero show, go watch “Daredevil” on Netflix, or “Supergirl” on the CW. “Legion” is doing something different—which is why it is so compelling, because it starts out with a cliché, and then does something entirely new with it.
“Legion” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX, which students living on campus can access for no extra charge—there’s literally no reason not to watch. Come, enjoy the madness.