There is an ongoing trend in television toward shows that rely far less on plot than on mood, that are crammed with stunning visuals and frustrating, circular dialogue. These shows often begin with pilot episodes so spectacular you can’t help but jump on board, but then they pad their seasons out as much as possible to keep the central story from moving forward too quickly. Mr. Robot, Westworld, The Young Pope, The OA, The Path, Bloodline, and Sense8 are among the series that have gone this route (some are very interesting, while others aren’t). But the latest, and most indulgent, entrant is FX’s Legion, which takes this more impressionistic approach and applies it to a comic-book show spun off from the X-Men universe.
Legion is David Haller (Dan Stevens), a man with telekinetic and telepathic abilities who was diagnosed as schizophrenic at a young age and has been in and out of institutions ever since. No one in the pilot episode ever says the word “mutant” or “X-Men,” but David was created by comics greats Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz in the pages of 1985’s New Mutants. There, he was introduced as a dangerously unstable anti-hero whose dissociative-identity disorder manifested as different abilities that he’s desperate to learn to control. The TV auteur du jour Noah Hawley, who created the FX series Fargo, has taken this strange character and turned him into something even stranger: the star of a prestige show.
Of course, comic-book heroes have become commonplace in the last 10 years, but FX’s gamble here still feels pretty unusual—even Netflix’s gritty Marvel Universe, featuring heroes like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, has a pulpy, action-packed feel. Not so with Legion, which takes place largely in David’s mind as he tries to sort fantasy from reality, to understand what exactly he can do and which of his friends are real (and which are mental projections). It’s a heady, unusual experience, even by the yardstick of the heady, unusual television of recent years (Mr. Robot is similarly interested in the unreliability of its narrator). But though it’s different enough to deserve audience interest, Legion is too often a tiresome viewing experience.
The pilot episode, which runs over an hour without commercials, sees David being interrogated by a mysterious suit (Hamish Linklater) about an incident at the mental institution he resided in for years. David obviously possesses all kinds of weird powers—mostly the ability to move things around with his mind, usually in spectacular slow-motion—but he seems to be the last person to get the bulletin, not entirely sure if he’s just imagining all the odd things that have happened in his life, and all the shadowy government agencies chasing him.
The set design is striking, and Hawley’s direction even more so: The pilot is rife with elaborately choreographed shots in which not a detail is out of place. It’s truly cinematic stuff that deserves to be taken in on the biggest screen possible (though one of the funniest details of this brave new world of prestige TV is that it’s so often viewed on a laptop). Hawley’s Fargo similarly has a definite visual pop, but its self-contained seasons are tightly woven epic tales of existential dread, unsolved murders, and gangster intrigue, populated by compelling characters. Legion, on the other hand, barely moves its story forward in its first three episodes. Viewers are mostly trapped inside David’s head, trying to unravel mysteries that don’t seem very important while the series talks around the larger questions of how his powers might work, or be applied, once he reaches his full potential.
But Legion isn’t sure if it wants to be a show about David’s abilities, or about mental illness. The latter theme is present in all the psych-ward cliches that get dug up. There are the continuous shots of David isolated from everyone around him, as if he’s surrounded by a 20-foot forcefield. There’s his wiseacre friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), a fast-talking, jittery recovering addict who pals around with David at the institution, and accompanies him (in his memories) on some bizarre misadventures in the real world. And there’s plenty of repetitive dialogue among baffled doctors trying to understand the parameters of David’s illness. Except he’s not exactly ill—he’s gifted, or so Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) tells him, as she moves to seize him from the hands of his interrogators and bring him to his camp for more, let’s say, individualized treatment.
Legion is perhaps more a story of overcoming trauma, as David attempts to parse his memories and past incidents to figure out what drives his powers. But the series is almost afraid to lean into the pulpier side of its comic-book origins, cloaking everything in therapeutic language as Dr. Bird and her protégé Syd (Rachel Keller) help David acclimate to his telekinesis and telepathy. You end up with a visual masterpiece that otherwise feels unsure of its identity—is Legion a cinematic tone poem, or a superhero origin story? After the three episodes provided to critics, it was hard to know.
Still, Stevens (probably best known as the handsome heir of Downton Abbey) is doing fine work at the center of all this, holding the camera’s focus even when Hawley’s dialogue feels like it’s going nowhere. There’s something so fascinating about Legion’s core purpose—taking a troublesome comic-book character and trying to flesh him out in a more artful way—that I will likely stay on board for this eight-episode season, to see if the world around him builds into something more concrete. Legion’s opening episodes, however, might not convince other viewers to do the same, as it tries so hard to dazzle that it forgets to tell a meaningful story.