Noah Hawley has a truly unique niche at this point in TV: taking projects that have no reason to be even good, and turning them into something great. There was no reason, for example, that there needed to be an anthology series based off of the Coen brothers’ superb masterpiece Fargo. And when it came out that the show was more of a spiritual successor than a true tie-in, I wondered what the point was. And yet, Fargo the series turned out to be a masterpiece, a twisty, idiosyncratic, amazing exploration of morality, violence, and goodness in a universe that defies easy categorization.
All of which goes to show, I shouldn’t have doubted Hawley when he announced that he’d be doing a TV series called Legion, based off of a somewhat obscure character from the X-Men universe. But I was, and you can hardly blame me. With the cookie-cutter, bland world of the Marvel films, and the seemingly overbearing need to tie everything together into one narrative, the idea of forcing someone as talented as Hawley into that world seemed silly. And that wasn’t even getting into whether you could hang a series on the odd comic book character of David Haller, an astonishingly powerful telepath/telekinetic whose powers have driven him into madness.
But I shouldn’t have doubted. Not at all. Because Legion turned out to be a true joy, a mindbending, surreal, genre-defying, truly weird (in the best way) show that I loved, refusing to cave in to the demands of the Marvelverse and instead making its own defiant stand for its own weirdness. More than that, it worked as great television, telling a story that was part character study, part superhero origin tale, part tale of good vs. evil…but more than any of that, it was wildly unclassifiable. What other show could feature Bollywood-style musical numbers, silent film interludes, exposition delivered by a character educating himself in a literal classroom – oh, and also feature some of the most unsettling, horrifying scenes I’ve seen in a television series this side of Twin Peaks?
Yes, of course much of that quality comes thanks to Hawley’s confident hand, and his decision to approach Legion with confidence and style, trusting that his audience will keep up and follow his twisting road. And given how surreal Legion‘s story is – given that its protagonist and point of view may be insane, may be a mutant, or may be both, and everything we see is filtered through his fractured brain – that takes guts, both on the parts of Hawley and of the network. Indeed, at any given point, Legion is both trying to understand the deeply damaged brain of its titular hero, expanding the strange corner of the world it’s created, and telling a whole other story that only gradually reveals itself over the course of the season. That it manages to do all three of these simultaneously, and do them all well, is no small thing.
But it undeniably helps that Hawley is assisted by his spectacular cast. It’s hard to find a weak link here; Dan Stevens, as David Haller, has to do much of the heavy lifting, but holds up beautifully underneath it all, following David through his highs and lows, his hopeless time in the asylum and his newfound purpose – all of it. But he’s backed up by a fantastic supporting cast, including Jean Smart as a matriarch-type figure who’s running a mutant organization attempting to help David and those like him; Rachel Keller as love interest, teammate, and heroine Syd Barrett (and how great is the in-joke of that name?); Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder as a uniquely connected pair of mutants, and so many more, including a fantastic small role by one of my favorite comedic presences. But the undeniable MVP is Aubrey Plaza, who plays Dan’s best friend (and fellow asylum patient) Lenny. Without getting into spoiler territory, Plaza gets a chance to shine in this role, which constantly evolves and shifts over the course of the series, letting her show more than her comedic chops, and delivering everything from unease to sex appeal, from unchecked power to seething anger. Plaza owns every moment of the show she’s in – and given how great the show is, that’s no small feat either.
But more than anything, Legion is a show that’s best watched and experienced, coming to life thanks to its style and its execution. From the incredible “Bolero” sequence (which may be the best sequence I’ve seen in a TV show in years) to that silent film stretch, from that nightmarish presence in a dark hotel room to an incredible use of soundtrack, it’s television for those who love their media with style, confidence, and storytelling prowess. And if you’re worried that this is just more Marvel material, rest assured, Legion works not because it’s a Marvel show, but in spite of it.