What defines a prestige drama? As the way we watch and digest TV continues to change, so, too, will that understanding. Typically, something like Mad Men, of course, a period drama about the inner tribulations of the social and literal politics within an advertising workplace, was the darling of the critical television community. Something pulpier, like, say, The Walking Dead, despite its millions of viewers week in and week out, never was afforded that same distinction. In between come things like Breaking Bad and the almost-finished Game of Thrones—shows that reeled in viewers, but also put critics into a trance. That’s where FX’s new Legion comes in—it’s more cerebral, and more out there than anything before it—but it’s also just straight-up good.
With the superhero TV boom of the last several years, the offerings of the genre have tended to fall into one of two groupings: mostly-light fluff (Supergirl, The Flash, NBC’s new Powerless) or overly-gritty drama (Daredevil, Gotham). So, naturally, leave it to FX, the network that took risks to bring us the genre-bending greatness of last year’s Atlanta and American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, for a stab at a superhuman story to ultimately jettison outside of the metaphorical box.
In the hands of Noah Hawley—showrunner for FX’s brilliant Fargo series—Legion is unlike anything in the history of the genre. Where Daredevil or Supergirl lean heavily on advancing plot, or a story-of-the-week, Legion is heavily invested in building the characters themselves, and going to incredible lengths to show us their inner workings, and, further, their underlying psyches.
At the center of it all, Dan Stevens plays David Haller, a mutant—the series is tangentially related to the X-Men universe after all, as Marvel Entertainment is involved with the show’s production—who has no idea what to make of the powers that he’s discovering in real time. Is he mentally ill? The series respectfully and accurately takes a hack at mental health, as much of the plot takes place in therapy, and in a mental hospital, where Haller hangs out with the also-distressed Lenny, played with blunted electricity by the inimitable Aubrey Plaza.
The rest of the cast shines often and frequently. Rachel Keller, an unknown until her memorable role in Fargo’s second season, has brilliant chemistry with Stevens, a love interest also learning a lot about herself (and her own powers) at a torrid pace. Jean Smart, another Fargo alum, plays an important role as a mentorto the young characters, and newcomer Jeremie Harris gives the series a jolt of energy with his character Ptonomy Wallace, a Tommy Gun-wielding ‘memory artist’ who works with the rest of our heroes.
Existing in the X-Men universe, it might be easy to compare Legion to films in that genre. Hawley’s style, after all, is overwhelmingly cinematic. But there are simply better things to compare it to. Aesthetically, Legion evokes memories of Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, another piece set in a surreal, slightly-alternative world. The world-building is so efficient, because we know almost immediately that world we’re looking at is not quite the same world that we, the viewers, live in.
The pilot of Legion—which I’ve now seen three times—is quite possibly the best first episode of a series that I’ve seen. That’s how instantly biting and addicting it is. There is no turning back, and as the series moves along, the audience, too, will grow. The lines between prestige and fun have long been blurring, but there’s no doubt here: Legion is a superhero show, but that in no way defines, or pigeonholes it. This show not only deserves your attention, but demands it. The idea of someone watching the pilot and not salivating at the simple thought of episode two is unfeasible to me.
In the end, it all comes back to Hawley, constantly building his case as the finest TV auteur in a time when TV is rapidly becoming the defining storytelling medium of our culture. Just as with Fargo, Hawley has great respect for the source material, but he doesn’t allow that to dominate or overwhelm his production. He has the stories that he wants to tell, and with a bit of settling, establishes the correct universe in which to tell them. And with Legion, everything in that universe falls right into place—even if it’s not playing by the rules.
Legion debuts tonight on FX at 10:00.
Photos courtesy of FX Networks.