In a television landscape preparing for a potential fifth superhero series at The CW and the arrival of Netflix's Iron Fist and its inevitable team-up follow-up series The Defenders, it has become increasingly difficult to find the energy to be excited by yet another comic book drama. But FX and Noah Hawley (Fargo) have found a way to reinvigorate our interest by embracing a subjective reality within the confines of a story tangentially related to the world of the X-Men.
The genre-bending new drama Legion, premiering Wednesday at 10/9c, is based on a little known Marvel character named David Haller, who was created in the 1980s by Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz. In comic lore, David is the schizophrenic son of Professor Charles Xavier, the well-known founder of the X-Men, but it's not immediately clear if the character's on-screen counterpart (Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame) shares this rather notable backstory. It's not even clear if the series will explore the cinematic universe of the X-Men films. What is clear, is that this stunning spin-off is a wholly original and creatively ambitious series that looks like nothing else on TV.
While The CW's series lack the budget and Netflix's Marvel properties are weighed down — both literally and figuratively — by the darkness suffocating Hell's Kitchen, Legion beautifully uses bright colors, an obvious '60s aesthetic and imaginative sequences — dance, dream or otherwise — that highlight the surreal reality of a man who might be mentally ill but also might be the most powerful mutant in the world.
Although it appears clear to the viewer that it's the latter, Legion's dependence on David as an unreliable narrator calls into question the credibility of the flashes of memories and unexpected displays of power that are stitched together to form the show's early episodes, which follow David's time spent in a psychiatric hospital, his escape from said hospital in an impressive but also sometimes awkward single take, and his training to rewrite his past and unlock his many powers with the help of an unconventional therapist played by Fargo's Jean Smart.
But it's here in the show's exploration of the space between perception and reality that the series is at its finest. By questioning what is and isn't real about David's existence — both in his mysterious, muddled past and dangerous overwhelming present, where his powers make him a possible weapon to be used by two warring groups — the series' dream logic produces refreshing but purposefully puzzling works of art that employ some of the most unique and bizarre visuals on TV. Hawley has repeatedly cited the music of Pink Floyd as an inspiration for the show's aesthetic, and by purposefully not dating the series — the '60s style of the characters' wardrobe doesn't line up with the timeline the series presents elsewhere — it's able to exist everywhere and nowhere at once.
However, despite its absurdist nature, Legion is, like many X-Men narratives, still grounded by its characters' humanity, by their relationships with one another and to an outside world that keeps trying to put them in boxes. Legion's central relationships are anchored by emotionally complex connections, particularly as they pertain to the various women who've appeared in David's life along his journey.
That list includes David's prim, proper and mostly put-together sister Amy (The League's Katie Aselton), the only person who's been by his side the entire time he's been on this wild ride and knows what the diagnosis has done to their family; his junkie best friend and fellow psychiatric patient Lenny (Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza), who remains surprisingly alert and optimistic despite everything; and Smart's Melanie Bird, the aforementioned therapist who wants to help but also eventually use David for her own objectives.
All three women play specific roles in David's life, but it's his unique relationship with girlfriend Sydney "Syd" Barrett (Fargo's Rachel Keller) — named in what appears to be an unspoken nod to the founding member of Pink Floyd who is said to have suffered from mental illness as well — that drives the majority of the show's emotional beats. A fellow mutant whose power involves touch, Syd cannot physically touch David without potentially disastrous consequences, and so the relationship between them exists only on the emotional and cerebral levels, something that lends a sense of innocence to their deepening love story.
For his part, Stevens has completely shed the persona of Downton's romantic leading man and has never been better than he is as the tightly wound David, a man who's as unsure of his own existence as he is everything occurring around him. Meanwhile, Keller, who garnered attention for her performance in the second season of Hawley's adaptation of the Coen Brothers' Fargo, is equally mesmerizing here as his stabilizing force. But frankly, there isn't a weak link in the entire series, an impressive feat for a show with as many confusing puzzles begging to be solved as Legion.
By embracing the absurdity of its world to depict David's journey from medicated and misdiagnosed psychiatric patient to a powerful mutant stuck in an ongoing struggle for the truth, Legion offers viewers a unique opportunity to once again fall in love with a genre that has at times felt like it was at least approaching if not already surpassed its saturation point. It's nothing short of a visually stunning triumph, and if you stick around long enough, you may even start to receive the answers to some of the show's most confusing questions. Even if you don't, the wild ride is still worth the price of admission.
Legion premieres Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 10/9c on FX.