Legion (FX) Pilot Review - Can't Get You Out of My Head
Stepping into a beloved license can be a daunting task, one that not everyone is capable of succeeding at. On one hand, there are people like Zack Snyder, who assume control of beloved properties and proceed to run them into the ground under the weight of numerous horrible decisions. On the other hand, there are people like Joe and Anthony Russo, who took control of Captain America in The Winter Soldier (and, now, have taken control of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's biggest event, Infinity War), and rise to the challenge, exceeding expectations and delivering crowd-pleasing entertainment.
But then there is the case of Noah Hawley, a man whose biggest job prior to 2014 was as the creator and showrunner of ABC's short-lived and little-loved program My Generation. Hawley arose from relative obscurity in 2013, when it was announced that he would be creating, writing, and producing a television series based on the Coen Brothers' 1996 masterpiece, Fargo. Widely considered to be one of the greatest films of the 90s (if not of all time), Fargo was the kind of film that one might consider "untouchable" in the present era of remakes, reboots, and reimaginings. This reviewer was admittedly one of the many who scoffed at the idea of some upstart trying to mess with the legacy of a film of such staggering artistry as Fargo possesses. People made snide comments on internet comment sections, deriding Hawley and FX for their presumption and counting down the days until the April 15, 2014 premiere so that the series could be mocked accordingly.
Holy hell was everyone wrong on that one.
Not only did Fargo, the series, turn out to fully deserve to bear the name of the film, it felt as if the Coens themselves had written and directed every episode. The plot, the cast, the cinematography, the script, everything about Fargo's first season was as close to perfect as television can get. And then the following year, Hawley stepped up his game and delivered a second season that may have even been better than the first. Noah Hawley was suddenly a name spoken with reverence and boundless respect, for he had done the unthinkable: stepped into a beloved universe and managed to come close to matching the greatness of the original's creators.
As the nigh-interminable wait for Fargo's third season (or series, as it is an anthology show with self-contained stories in each season) progressed, a new announcement came out of FX concerning Noah Hawley: he would be creating, writing, producing, and running a series taking place in Fox's X-Men universe. Once again, the TV-consuming world was ablaze with comments, only this time instead of skeptical derision the series was awaited with rabid anticipation. Hawley had proven himself to be a singular talent, and for him to tackle something with even more history than Fargo, something totally different than that property, was a sign of the man's clearly boundless ambition. Awaiting one Hawley project was torture enough, but now to await a second seemed impossible.
This past Wednesday night, February 8, 2017, FX debuted the first episode of Hawley's X-Men series. Titled Legion, the plot of the pilot is deceptively simple and can be summed up in the most basic fashion with only a few words: David Haller (Dan Stevens), a man imprisoned in a mental institution and diagnosed with schizophrenia (among a host of other issues) has his life changed forever due to an encounter with a new patient on the ward, Sydney (Rachel Keller). To discuss the plot any more than this would be doing a disservice to the show, as it doles out information at a methodical pace calculated to heighten the mystery of what is actually going on.
As to that mystery, of course, anyone familiar with the X-Men comics knows who Haller is, as well as a host of other information about him. But prior knowledge of the comic books is by no means required for viewers to enjoy Legion. The series has, as of now, minimal connection to the larger X-Men universe and is instead content to focus on David's struggle to come to grips with what is actually wrong (or, right) with him. Along the way, the viewer is treated to a number of other interesting characters, chief among whom are Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), David's only friend in the institution, and Amy (Katie Asleton), David's suburbanite sister who visits him in the institution. The cast is uniformly excellent, but particular praise must be heaped on Stevens, who knocks his role out of the park already, even at this early stage. Stevens, the former Downton Abbey star, portrays David as a twitchy- forever-on-edge victim struggling under the weight of his perceived mental instability and grasping at whatever vestiges of reality manage to poke through his affliction. Paranoia, mistrust, nervous humor, and mental anguish are only a few of the emotions Stevens is required to display over the course of the pilot's extra-long running time, and based on his performance thus far it is clear that Stevens will be able to carry this series going forward.
Hawley wrote and directed the pilot episode, simply titled "Chapter 1," and his skills in both departments are still as strong as ever. The dialogue is witty, mysterious, gripping, and completely entertaining throughout, showcasing Hawley's ability to write natural-sounding conversations occurring in entirely unnatural situations even better than Fargo (with its comparably more grounded setting) can. And the direction manages to place the viewer practically inside of David's world, putting viewers off-balance from the opening slow-motion-tableau montage of David growing up (set to The Who's "Happy Jack") to the final, thrilling sequence that wraps the episode up. Without spoiling that final sequence, suffice it to say that it contains one of the most impressive, single-take tracking shots likely ever shown on television. Hawley's knack for making excellent music choices also carries over to Legion from Fargo, as the aforementioned Who song is joined by such classics as the Rolling Stones' "She's A Rainbow" and Jane's Addiction's "Up The Beach."
If this review reads a bit vague, it is only due to a desire to maintain the show's best moments and surprises for the show itself to disclose. Suffice it to say that this is easily on track to becoming the best new series of the 2016-2017 television season, and has already earned the right to be called appointment viewing for the foreseeable future. It really isn't possible to overstate how wholly unique and shockingly well-executed Legion's pilot is. If the rest of the season is this incredible, FX and Hawley will have conquered another beloved property and made it their own.
This is Legion. And hopefully there are many, many more episodes of it yet to come.
Legion airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.