“Who teaches us to be normal when we’re one of a kind?”
Those words, spoken by Rachel Keller’s Syd Barrett (yes, named after that Syd Barrett), define one of the many incredibly grounded, human themes playing in the background of FX’s Legion, a new television series based on one of Marvel Entertainment’s many successful X-Men comics of the same name.
In this new superhuman endeavor, created by Noah Hawley (known for his work on FX’s “Fargo” series), Dan Stevens (of “Downton Abbey” and “Beauty and the Beast” fame) plays David Haller, a man who is believed to suffer from paranoid schizophrenic delusions, but may be much more than anyone thinks.
In the comics, David Haller is Legion, the antihero son of Gabrielle Haller and Charles Xavier, the telepathic mutant famously played on film by Sir Patrick Stewart. While Dan Stevens lacks Legion’s infamous high-top hairstyle, his spirit remains the same – a manic, uncertain man coming into an incredible amount of power and not being sure what to do with it. At its core, “Legion” is about a man going through a cycle of acceptance, and the reality of that shows very clearly on Stevens’s face. As extreme as David’s situation is, he’s someone people can connect with on a very deep, very human level, despite the fact that he can hear others’ thoughts and send kitchenware flying with his mind.
Aside from Dan Stevens, the rest of the cast is incredibly smart and well-cast, filled with televisions veterans and newbies alike. Amber Midthunder and Bill Irwin make a fantastic team as Kerry Loudermilk and Cary Loudermilk (yes, you read that right), and Aubrey Plaza makes a wonderfully bizarre Lenny Busker – a role originally written for a middle-aged man.
Jean Smart dominates as Melanie Bird, the stoic leader of “Legion”’s band of mutants. She carries herself with the style of Miranda Priestly and the biting wit of Rizzo from “Grease”, shutting down antagonists with unforgettable one-liners like, “You’d better learn to fly like a bird, because the age of the dinosaur is over.”
Jemaine Clement, known for his comedic work in HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” and 2014’s “What We Do in the Shadows”, brings well-placed laughs as Oliver Bird, the eccentric and long-suffering (or so everyone thinks) husband of Melanie with a fondness for beat poetry and jazz music.
Each character is a scene-stealer in their own right, but the real gem of the show is Noah Hawley’s ability to create an atmosphere that feels foreign and dangerous, getting audiences inside David Haller’s head and projecting his frenzied emotions onto viewers. Prime-time television has seen some other well-received superhero television shows – like the CW’s DC properties and ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” – but nothing quite like the acid trip that “Legion” delivers. The show shifts from reality to imagination (and maybe even further) seamlessly, often blurring the line between the two so strongly that viewers have difficulty distinguishing them. In one moment, everything seems normal, and in the next, soldiers are piled together in a floating heap, or a character is literally dancing through the fabric of reality to Bassnectar’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”. And that’s just how Hawley likes it.
The series reads like one long Kubrick film, and isn’t afraid to push the envelope when it comes to production value. Subtle hints to the show’s origins are worked into the set or the camera work – like the circular windows with the x-shaped frames that look eerily similar to the famous X-Men logo (also seen in the show’s title cards) – but they also aren’t shy about using cinematography to drive the story.
Hawley and his team aren’t afraid to play with color and color symbolism, often surrounding their actors with bright hues in the setting or washing them in pure colored lighting to signify something important. Whether it be the bright blue of innocence and safety that shows up in places like the “astral plane” inside the characters’ psyches, the orange that connects David back to his time in Clockworks Mental Hospital, or the dark, sinister stoplight-red that colors a frame every time an antagonist has the upper hand, Hawley colors his show like a child with a set of neon markers, and it works out wonderfully.
Some may call it strange, but most would call it a masterpiece. Noah Hawley and his cast of mutants have succeeded in telling a story that few would be able to translate to the screen, pulling viewers into what David would call a “romance of the mind”.