Warning: This article contains moderate spoilers for Legion Season 1.
Despite Marvel’s amazing ability to pump out many high quality movies each year, a glaring weakness in their properties is clearly their television shows. While Agents of Shield has enjoyed a recent resurgence in quality, ratings no longer justify its existence, and Marvel’s Netflix shows are currently in a downward spiral with Luke Cage and Iron Fist landing lukewarm reviews. Fortunately, Marvel has begun to change this through their alliance with 21st Century Fox. While Fox has had varied success, their more recent efforts have revived the magic captured in the first two X-Men films. Now, Fox has begun to branch out into TV with Marvel’s support. Their first effort on the small screen was Legion, a show about David Haller, a man who is in a mental institution and comes to realize he is the world’s most powerful mutant. Created by Noah Hawley, showrunner of Fargo, Legion is mind-bending, beautiful, and thought-provoking.
It has become a tradition, it seems, for me to review products featuring a mentally ill protagonist, including Mr. Robot and Swiss Army Man. While Mr. Robot is grounded firmly in reality, Legion fully embraces the wackiness of its mutant protagonists, and Hawley sets out to thoroughly confuse the viewer. Using David’s mental illness as a tool, scenes are replayed many times, the most notable being David destroying his kitchen. Throughout the season, the viewer is made to wonder whether David is truly ill or just immensely powerful. Similarly to Mr. Robot, the story is told through an unreliable narrator, with David confused most of the time.
However, it is the other actors who shine, with Jemaine Clement and Aubrey Plaza standing out most. Clement, of Flight of the Conchords and Moana fame, plays a man straight out of the 60’s, Oliver Bird. Spending the first few episodes in which he appears in an ice cube in another dimension, Oliver is both the most interesting and funniest character on the show. Humorously oblivious to modern times and simultaneously the most knowledgeable of the protagonists, Clement plays him beautifully, highlighting his quirks and using his musical talents perfectly. Another quirky comedian, Plaza, plays the main villain of the show. To keep spoilers to a minimum, I’ll just say that she plays a nefarious mental parasite who latches onto David’s mind and harnesses his powers. Plaza, former star of Parks and Recreation, shows her acting chops to the fullest, creating a truly scary character in Lenny. Seemingly just a funny druggie, Lenny turns out to be so much more, and Plaza sells it wonderfully, using her knack for weirdness that shines through in all her roles. The cast is what takes the show from very good to great, and these two play the largest part in this.
While he gets incredible performances out of his actors, Noah Hawley has also simultaneously created what is the most cinematographically stunning show I have ever seen. Taking full advantage of the show’s premise, Hawley toys with the viewer constantly, and this is made possible by the outstanding camera work. The cinematography approaches and even in some cases exceeds levels seen only in film, making the show a true piece of art that is amazing to behold not only because of the writing. That said, the writing is great as well, giving the show an ethereal feel, but still maintaining an air of reality. Here, Hawley pulls off his greatest trick, keeping the show in a space that does not occupy any particular time. All the characters act like they live around the 80’s, but there are contrasting examples of modern technology. The words spoken by the characters do nothing to clear this up, speaking in uncertain terms about past events, shrouding the universe in mystery. Do the X-Men exist? How much power does the government have, and what is their agenda? None of these questions are answered over the course of the first season, yet Legion retains the aura of an X-Men show, using mutant powers sparingly but in incredible flashes. When they are used, the powers are shown better than I have ever seen, from the intimidating transformations brought on by Syd to Oliver’s displays of his eclectic abilities. With hints at larger connections, Hawley entices both X-Men fans and dedicatees of high-quality TV.
While Hawley has undoubtedly created a masterpiece of modern television, it may be difficult to watch for many more casual viewers. While I had the good fortune of being knowledgeable about X-Men and Legion in particular, other viewers seem to have been disadvantaged by their lack of experience with the character. As one viewer I talked to explained, one must be willing to do research in order to begin to understand the show, but one can still enjoy the show without understanding it. Hawley is a genius and deserves all awards possible, but he could’ve been more straightforward in some aspects without the show’s quality suffering.
Combining genres, subverting expectations, and masterfully editing and producing, Noah Hawley and crew have managed to create what would be their magnum opus if only Fargo did not exist. Eliciting the best possible performances from all actors, along with mixing in traditional comic book elements to new storylines, Hawley has put together a TV show fit for the big screen and one that would not be out of place among the best made films of today. Looking back upon the show in 10 years, it may not be the most compelling or the most relevant, but it will certainly be seen as one of the most alluring seasons of modern television.