LEGION: Wednesday 10PM on FX – DVR Alert
The answer to what Noah Hawley could do for an encore after Fargo is: continue to spectacularly overperform. Fargo was and is a totally unexpected piece of great television, an adaptation that’s not an adaptation of one of the quirkiest masterworks in the American cinema canon, which reinvents itself with a new cast, story and setting every season. Having pulled that off, Hawley could have rested on his laurels for a good long time (in his idle hours, he’s also a NY Times-bestselling novelist). Instead, he’s taken the keys to Fox’s prime creative asset, its Marvel-derived intellectual property, and delivered an explicitly Kubrickean deconstruction of the superhero genre (it’s not for nothing that much of the action takes place at the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital) with FX’s new LEGION.
No one even mentions the word “mutant” during the 90-minute first installment of Legion, which Hawley wrote and directed (the show was ordered straight-to-series, so there was never really a “pilot”), much less invoke X-Men, but the property resides in an obscure corner of that franchise. Superhero sagas have been the ascendant Hollywood genre for almost a decade now, and the clock goes back to the dawn of the 21st century for the first X-Men movie, so it’s just good business for the purveyors of those wares to find new and distinctive ways of telling stories in that universe. That’s why DC is now in the sitcom business with NBC’s Powerless and will go after family audiences with this weekend’s The LEGO Batman Movie, while the Fox film studio had a huge hit with the R-rated self-satire Deadpool, also an X-Men artifact.
No one, though, has sliced the genre quite like Hawley does with Legion. It’s set in and around the mind of David Haller (Dan Stevens), who appears to have superpowers and may also be genuinely insane. Hawley’s tour de force of a premiere intercuts between David’s various stages of disassociated consciousness as he zigs and zags between memories, fantasies, and potentially a reality that’s stranger than both. It’s unclear whether his telekinetic powers put him into Clockworks in the first place, although that seems likely, but he appears to be more or less under control there, with heavy medication and a friendship with fellow inmate Lenny (Aubrey Plaza).
Love, though, changes everything. A new patient named Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) enters Clockworks–we don’t know yet whether she was there to track down David or if that was happenstance. But she insists that no one touch her skin, even when she and David become a couple (instead of holding hands, each holds one half of a ribbon as they walk down the halls together), but when he can’t resist a farewell kiss, all hell breaks loose, as her own powers involve body-switching. Syd, once in David’s body but with no control of his powers, seals the other inmates inside Clockworks’ walls–or in one grisly case, in the process of entering the wall–while David tries to figure out why he has a woman’s body. This leads to a mysterious government group imprisoning and interrogating David, and ultimately, if what we’re seeing is actually fact, with Syd and a group of fellow mutants breaking David out.
Such a summary, though, doesn’t do justice to Hawley’s constant intercutting of past with present and reality with delusion (the editing is by Chris A. Peterson), or his remarkable imagery (the cinematographer is Dana Gonzales), era-warping costumes (by Carol Case) and production design (Michael Wylie). There are spectacular special effects when David lets his powers loose, including a sequence where every object in his kitchen launches into flight, apparently achieved entirely with practical effects and not CG. As in Fargo, Hawley uses music to great effect, including a virtuoso opening that takes us through glimpses of David’s entire life to The Who’s “Happy Jack.”
Despite all that technical achievement, Hawley has provided plenty of meaty material to his actors. Stevens, who’s been trying to move past his Downton Abbey image for years, creates a hero who’s empathetic, romantic and a little bit scary, Keller (who had a choice supporting role on Season 2 of Fargo) is both strong and appealing as the object of David’s feelings, and Plaza is well cast as a madwoman who can still quip with the best of them. There’s even space for some humor courtesy of Katie Aselton as David’s sister, who quietly removes the sharp objects when David is staying with her. (Jean Smart is also a series regular, but appeared only briefly in the opening episode.)
We can’t know at this point whether Hawley will be able to sustain this remarkable level of invention throughout the 8 episodes of Legion, but it would be a mistake to bet against him. He’s got superpowers of his own.