Mar 30, 2017

TV Retrospective: "Legion" - Season 1

Dan Stevens
Legion is unlike any other superhero TV series or movie that you have ever seen. That isn't just hyperbole. It's something that will likely be its defining trait for years going forward. From Fargo creator Noah Hawley, the show focuses on David Haller (Dan Stevens) as he winds up in an insane asylum and is forced to undergo bizarre treatments that unveil the deepest recesses of his mind. To say the least, they are bizarre. Many episodes have taken to adapting stylistic flourishes such a macabre silent film techniques to convey the insanity of its story. While this make Legion a very shiny show with a lot of confusing elements, it's one of the most exciting new shows of 2017, and that's before you get into the immersive, cryptic plot that develops with each and every episode. Even if you don't get it, it's hard not to love the assuring nature of Legion's existence.
In general, fantasy and sci-fi shows get the short shrift when it comes to budgetary potential. With exception to HBO series like Westworld, most shows have to settle for mediocre effects and cost-cutting measures to bring their head trip landscapes to fruition. While it lacks the verbal essence that makes Hawley's Fargo so great, Legion is a master class in how to use special effects to forward a story. From its opening montage set to The Who's "Happy Jack," the show relies on close attention to small details. This is partially because it's uncertain what is real and imaginary within the confines of the show. There's a lot of literal head trips that result in eccentric choices, such as Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement) being an enthusiast for off-kilter musical styles. This is a world that thrives on weirdness, and it never disappoints.
Underneath the mesmerizing images is a story of David the superhero whose powers aren't quite known. His journey through memory and reality are on par with Christopher Nolan-level cryptology. The viewer sees him travel through therapy sessions as well as landscapes that are borderline impossible to describe. It's almost forgivable to see David react along with the audience to the world that he's been placed in. Along with the career best performance by Aubrey Plaza as Lenny Baker, the show is a tour of what insanity looks like when allowed to be as insane as its title suggests. 
It's a show so self-indulgent that it would make Ryan Murphy blush. While genre fans will get more out of the show, those just willing to let the imagery stimulate will be awarded nicely. It is likely that even if the show goes off the rails that its first season will be held up as a small masterpiece in which a fantasy series was allowed to be as wild as it needed to be to tell its story right. Legion may be in some ways problematic, but it's likely that those wanting to experience TV on a visceral level will have a ridiculous amount of content to parse through. The only disappointment is that there's not going to be more right away to confuse viewers and leave them feeling that, like the characters on screen, their world has been shattered and their mind has been blown out of proportion.
Legion is a show that excels at showing something new on TV. Rarely has a mental asylum, let alone a superhero show, been depicted in such vivid detail. It's almost a post-story series, relying on powerful moments that elevate the visual medium to a new height. Even as the show becomes crazier and sillier, it manages to become more interesting. It has yet to fall into the convoluted trap set by high concept shows. Maybe Legion season two will do that, but for now it's one of those great examples of what auteur TV can look like if given the opportunity to swing for the fences and take chances on things that don't make sense, but look good anyways.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

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