A lot of words have been written over the past year on so-called "comic book movie fatigue," an overabundance of cookie-cutter style superhero stories that have now infected television. There are certainly a lot of them to choose from between Netflix (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and soon Iron Fist, The Defenders, The Punisher), The CW (The Arrowverse), Amazon (The Tick), Fox (Gotham, Lucifer), ABC (Agents Of SHIELD, Agent Carter, The Inhumans), NBC (Constantine, Powerless), AMC (The Walking Dead, Preacher), and probably plenty more I'm either forgetting or are upcoming (Hulu is entering the game with Runaways, Starz with American Gods, Syfy with Krypton). There's never been a time when comic book adaptations could flourish more readily—networks are literally lining up to sign checks for shows that come with instant and hyper-engaged fanbases.
But along with the sudden explosion of these kinds of shows—some of which are very enjoyable (just about all the Marvel Netflix shows), some of which nail their tones masterfully (the shared Arrowverse)—has come a dreaded sameness that has fueled the perceived exhaustion. The problem has never been the properties from which these shows arise, but rather from the execution, which either hews too close to the source material or tries too hard to make the subjects fit into classic television storytelling modes. What fans of the genre—and certainly critics of it—have been craving is a new approach, one that grasps the limitless imagination and colorfulness of those stories but takes advantage of the scope of the television medium, all without getting weighed down by overly-complicated continuity or burdensome expectations.
Legion, which premieres on FX at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, February 8, has done just that. It's a superhero show without any costumes, one that is more concerned with exploring memory and identity than operatic battles against megalomaniac villains hellbent on taking over the world. It's a genre-bending cyclone that smoothly switches between sci-fi thriller, psychological horror and even an endearing rom-com. As one character says within the first three episodes, "we're having a romance of the mind."
It is visually sumptuous, with the kinds of shots that you'll want to print out and frame (or at least start a Reddit thread with various screenshots). It is weird as hell, shifting between clashing timelines, schizophrenic visuals, and even dance numbers. It's unafraid to experiment with storytelling devices, but also makes sure from the very start to ground the emotional underpinnings of the main character. It is the first truly uncanny comic book TV show, and also possibly the first great one. And it has one of the best pilots I've ever seen—so much saw that I re-watched it at least four times to soak it all in.
Legion nominally exists within the X-Men universe, but it's not really important to understanding the show—you can read this Vulture guide on some of Legion the character's greatest hits from the comic books, but it is not necessary to know anything about him to jump in the deep end. The titular character, David Haller, has a pretty important connection to a major X-Men figure (no spoilers here, but all it takes is a very quick Google search to discover who), but for now, it doesn't seem like this is a thread the show is ready or interested in pulling on. (One other X-Men connection: there is a kind of Professor X stand-in, played by Jean Smart, but the less given away about that for now the better.)
What you should know is that the show faithfully latches onto the core concept of the X-Men and runs with it—that being different, or the other, is something to be celebrated, even in the face of hate and fear and misunderstanding from society. Using that, it poses the question: what if you were told you were mentally ill from a young age only to discover your alleged delusions were all-too-real, mere manifestations of your otherworldly and hard-to-grasp powers?
The dazzling visual tones of the show are impossible to ignore, combining the bright color schemes of X-Men: First Class with the demented vibe of Brazil. Up until about halfway through the pilot, I was convinced this could have been taking place anytime in the '60s or '70s, or even some vision of the future; the aesthetic is so immediately unique, a mix of Anglophilia, psychedelic references and endless green monochromes, that there is no chance you could ever confuse it with anything else on TV.
Showrunner/creator/writer/pilot director Noah Hawley has somehow transferred the energy and excitement of Fargo season two, his last major TV project, into the comic book realm. Just substitute the Coen Brothers-as-muse for David Lynch and Chris Claremont, and voila. It's an understatement to call the show highly stylized—it's visual inventiveness is its North Star. It can be unsettling in moments (especially the recurring image of The Devil With Yellow Eyes, who seems to be this show's Killer Bob), and it risks being overly pretentious at times (I'm not quite sure how I feel about Aubrey Plaza's character just yet, and how she fits into things), but it balances it out with playfulness, deadpan levity, and a sincere awe of the characters and their struggles.
As David Haller, Dan Stevens is charming as ever, with a soft (and oftentimes bizarrely comical) touch that belies his chaotic burgeoning mutant abilities (his American accent is also a lot better than Benedict Cumberbatch's). The pilot starts with a montage that tracks his entire life leading up to the major inciting incidents for the show, as Haller goes from happy kid (literally The Who's "Happy Jack"), to a suicidal teen overwhelmed by the "delusions" in his head, to a psychiatric patient who looks like a rejected member of Blur.
The fractured nature of his abilities—he's something of a telepath and telekinetic, but it could be more than that—is reflected in the chronological skipping, as we frantically jump between different periods in David's life trying to piece together the puzzle of his mind, with about as much understanding of what is or isn't real as he has. There are recurring images and dream sequences galore, as well as stories-within-stories, but by the end of episode two, I already felt like I completely understood the timeline of events.
Ultimately, what most impresses me about the show is its ability to use the language of comics to tell a grounded story. None of the various mutants' powers so far are like Iceman or Wolverine or Superman—they revolve around mental abilities, reflections of people's inner selves, analogies for the ways we develop as people. Even with the inventive visuals and eager audio cues, the show wouldn't work nearly as well without wrapping it in the surprisingly touching love story between Haller and Syd Barrett (yes, that reference is pretty easy), who is played by the wonderful Rachel Keller (with shades of Rogue, for those who know the comic book character). Their instant connection, so perfectly encapsulated by The Rolling Stones' "She's A Rainbow" and the image of them holding a rag together (that particular montage reminded me of the classic British show Spaced in the best way possible), is the emotional through-line needed to balance out all the insanity.
And when the show finally gives us a taste of those superhero fireworks we've all come to expect from the genre, hoo boy is it fun. The best moment for me was when David lashes out at a government facility: times slows down and suddenly it's like individual comic panels have burst to life. And did I mention the absolutely delightful French New Wave-inspired dance sequence? Or the kitchen utensils dancing in the air around David? Or the giant metaphorical guitar amp volume knob?
I don't want to give away any real spoilers, but after the unforgettable pilot, the show gets into a slightly-less audacious (but wholly unique) groove with episodes two and three. Some viewers may see the boldly stylized format and dismiss the show as empty calories TV, all flash and no substance. That was obviously not my experience (and most critics are in agreement about this one), especially because we're dealing with a showrunner and team who are fully in control of their vision for Legion. The best new show of the young year? Perhaps. At the very least it challenges what we think a comic book TV show can be, and there's nothing delusional about that.