Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Legion," Year One

My opinion of "Legion" kept changing as the season went on. After the spectacular premiere, I thought it was the best superhero-themed show I'd ever seen. After three episodes, my enthusiasm had waned significantly. After five episodes, I was mostly back onboard, though my expectations were tempered. After seven episodes, I was ecstatic again. And after the eighth and last episode, I was mildly infuriated. A couple of minor spoilers for the first episode below.

"Legion" is a show about David Haller (Dan Stevens), who thinks he's schizophrenic, but it turns out that he's actually a mutant in the "X-men" universe with strong psychic gifts. A fellow psychiatric patient, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), becomes David's girlfriend, and starts to help him realize his powers. She's part of a secret mutant collective that help to bust David out of captivity. However, something in David's confused mind is interfering with their efforts to help untangle his past, something he calls the Devil With the Yellow Eyes. And there's also shadowy government groups running around constantly trying to kill him.

I don't want to go into much detail, because part of the fun of "Legion" is learning how to interpret all the wildly stylized images that you're seeing, and figuring out what's real and what isn't. A huge amount of the show takes place in David's head, as the characters sort through his memories and fractured consciousness, and David is a highly unreliable narrator. For instance, Aubrey Plaza plays an important character named Lenny, initially introduced as David's friend from the psychiatric hospital. However, she keeps popping up in David's other memories, and it takes several episodes to pin down exactly who her character is.

The pace here is slow, but there's usually something interesting going on. Showrunner Noah Hawley uses David's wonky mental landscape to do all sorts of wild stuff, like random song-and-dance numbers, a silent movie sequence, and a very impressive chalkboard animation scene. Music plays a big role, as much of the show is very atmospheric and concerned with juggling shifting moods and tones. We can go from claustrophobic horror to thrilling action to whimsy in only a few minutes. Frankly, this is not the kind of ambitious series that is going to be to everyone's tastes. I'm not really sure if it's to my tastes either.

"Legion" is mighty impressive when you look at its individual pieces, and there are multiple times when it's just firing on all cylinders and so much fun to watch. However, it has just as many lows, when the fancy dance number just comes off as indulgent, or the umpteenth return to a particular memory is just coming off as repetitive, and the experience of watching the series is just plain dull. I really got invested in the characters, and Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller are absolutely fantastic to watch, but it was frustrating to keep seeing them dragged back into David's head week after week. I don't think that Hawley managed to fundamentally crack the story of David's struggle for control over his mind, even with all the flashy visuals and the sweet soundtrack.

I haven't said much about Syd's friends, the Summerland mutants yet, because I found them pretty poorly handled. Led by a psychiatrist named Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), they provide a haven for mutants while trying to fight back against the government agents who seek to oppress and control them. Their team includes a memory expert, Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), and the curious pair of Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder), who are technically two different people sharing one body. Melanie's husband Oliver (Jermaine Clement), who disappeared years ago into the "astral plane," also plays a role.

They are all terribly interesting characters, and well portrayed by talented actors, who don't get nearly as much to do as they should. "Legion" stays so tightly focused on David, and is so caught up in his particular set of problems, there's not much room for anyone else. We only get the most cursory storylines about Cary and Kerry, and Melanie and Oliver. Ptonomy and, oddly, Syd's whole pre-David life, are pretty much ignored after a few episodes. What really surprised me about "Legion" was ultimately how limited in scope it felt.

However, the series will be getting a second season and plenty of opportunity to expand its horizons. Maybe the next time around, the show's creators will find a way to beef up their narratives a bit more without sacrificing the show's impeccable style. I really did get very attached to this cast and these characters, especially Aubrey Plaza in all her different incarnations. Maybe next time I'll come out of "Legion" a fan instead of a jumble of mixed reactions.

Oh, and that mid-credits scene was just terrible.

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