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Legion's Spectacular First Season Paves the Way for a New Era of Comic Book Shows

The uniqueness of the FX drama sets it apart and also marks a turning point

Kaitlin Thomas

When viewers have more than 400 scripted television shows to choose from each year, creating a series that very clearly isn't meant for everyone isn't nearly as problematic in the long run as it sounds. Broad appeal is not as important as it might have once been, especially when the show in question airs on cable and not on a broadcast network like Fox.

But the phrase "your mileage may vary" also feels like a massive understatement when that show is FX's Legion, a mind-bending trip exploring mental illness from inside the mind of someone who may or may not be mentally ill while also wrapped in a larger Marvel metaphor.

Those who love the show really love it, while those who don't certainly have myriad well-reasoned arguments for walking away from it: they couldn't connect to David Haller (Dan Stevens) or his story; they couldn't find the logic or motivation behind some of the show's excesses, like the intermittent dance numbers or a detour into a black-and-white silent film; or they thought the show and its writing were pretentious.

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But for those who stuck around through the show's first season and watched David's so-called origin story and search for answers unfold were treated to a creatively ambitious if sometimes confusing whirlwind of retro aesthetics, inventive indulgences and maybe the best performances of stars Dan Stevens' and Aubrey Plaza's careers.

The visually arresting series concluded its first season in spectacular fashion Wednesday, with David finally facing off against the Shadow King inside his own mind. When it became clear he likely wouldn't survive, Syd (Rachel Keller) intervened and kissed David, resulting in the Shadow King jumping first into her body and then into Kerry (Amber Midthunder) before eventually landing in Oliver (Jemaine Clement) almost immediately after he finally remembered Melanie (Jean Smart). Oliver and Lenny (Plaza) then booked it from Summerland and the finale ended with a mid-credits sequence (of course) in which David was kidnapped via pretty cool tech sent by someone unknown.

The show's jagged-edged puzzle pieces accompanied by an initial lack of answers may have prevented some viewers from finding their way into this world, but the fact is, very few shows take the kinds of risks creator Noah Hawley and his staff took to bring the story of Legion to life onscreen. And that's why it's easily the best comic book show on TV, not to mention one of the best shows currently airing regardless of genre.

FX renews Legion -- but there's a catch


Dan Stevens, Legion

Michelle Faye/FX

With a narrative depicting a subjective reality combined with the unlimited possibilities allowed by its comic book nature, Legion was free to experiment in ways very few series are able to. The variations in form nearly every week or trips to Oliver's ice cube in the astral plane were made possible by this creative freedom. These decisions led to stand-out moments in one of the most imaginative series television has seen in years, but it's just as possible that they could have been alienating and thus could have led to the show's downfall.

On the big screen, Marvel, which co-produces Legion with FX (Fox holds the movie rights to the X-Men), has cornered the market on successful superhero films. The Avengersand its sequel Age of Ultron are the fifth and seventh highest-grossing films of all time, respectively, while fellow MCU films Iron Man 3 and last year's Captain America: Civil War come in at numbers 10 and 12.

At least one of the reasons these films have found success is their ability to appeal to mass audiences. But the business of creating and producing comic book films -- and Fox and DC are almost just as guilty as Marvel here -- requires each film to set the stage for the next chapter, the next sequel, the next summer blockbuster. On TV that pressure is lessened. As the son of Professor Charles Xavier, the well-known leader of the X-Men, David and his story are only tangentially related to the popular X-Men films that kicked off the modern superhero genre back in 2000, and that's not just fine, that's honestly how it should be.

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Fans don't need to be spoon-fed everything, and Legion's existence outside the well-known world of the X-Men films is what has allowed it to thrive both creatively and narratively. The narrative hasn't been hamstrung by what's happening in another area of an interconnected universe or in another medium altogether. David's individual journey as a human hasn't been overshadowed by the introduction of bigger, more familiar names. There's also no global threat that the show's ragtag team of mutants have to come together to defeat to save the world by the end of Season 1.

Legion is one man's story and one man's story only. Its strength lies in what makes David human, not just what makes him extraordinary. And it's that humanity -- his emotions, his relationships, his decisions -- that anchor the show's more eccentric beats or breaks from form and elevate the show beyond a stereotypical comic book-based narrative.

The story of David Haller has really only just begun, but it is successful because it isn't being dictated by executives and non-creatives who need to plant the seeds for their next series within this one. Legion is the pure artistic vision of its creator, and it's that singular perspective that's created a unique viewing experience and allowed the series and its version of reality to feel radically different and novel in a television landscape littered with comic book adaptations.

Maybe it's crazy, but it's what we need.

Legion will return for Season 2 in 2018.