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TV Review: Breaking down and making sense of the premiere of ‘Legion’ on FX

 

Last night saw the premiere of a new Marvel TV show, Legion, on FX. Adapted and showran by Noah Hawley (the mind behind that other “shouldn’t work on ever but did” TV series, Fargo), and starring Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, The Guest), this is sure to be one of the big new series of 2017. As one of Vanyaland’s resident comic book nerds, I’ll be recapping this X-Men spinoff weekly and adding some of my thoughts about it at the bottom.

Hopefully I’m funnier than Chris Hardwick. Spoilers follow.

Whew, an hour-and-a-half hour pilot. This will be a long one, guys. We begin with a vaguely Wes Anderson-influenced journey through David’s adolescence from biking around as a tween, to punching a dude in the face at his prom, to stealing soda as the world burns, to going to his first psychiatrist appointment, to trying to hang himself with an extension cord. Oh, yeah, it’s all set to “Happy Jack,” so with that and all the flat colors and parallel framing, you’ve got to forgive us for the Wes Anderson comparisons. Flash forward a little while, David’s sister is visiting him in a mental institution. She’s about to give him a cupcake with a lit candle on it, and a guard tells her she can’t give it to him, which you’d guess the guard would normally put a squash on that shit right about the time she pulled out the lighter, but whatever. We find out he’s been in the hospital roughly five years, and he’s itching to leave it, but most likely won’t be able to, though his sister insists he’s getting better. It’s at that point the guard tells him it’s time for his meds, and gets him the fuck out of there.

 

It’s there he meets the most annoying character in this pilot, Aubrey Plaza, who is sizing up a patient with a large strand of drool hanging out of his mouth. She’s just generally awful, just and didn’t endear us with her psycho-hepcat banter, and we guess we’re supposed to be okay with her stuff because it’s “influenced by David Bowie.” Then, a new patient (Rachel Keller) enters the room, a haphephobe (meaning a person with a fear being touched) who also just happens to be a beautiful blonde with pigtails. Her name’s Sidney Barrett (geddit, guys?) so we’ll just call her Syd from here on out, and after spewing nonsense at a group therapy session about how the crazy shit inside your head “makes you you,” David asks her to be his girlfriend. That’s all well and good if you’re the crazy person in there whose superpowers make you nuts, not so much if you’re the dude in there with homicidal or self-harming or totally debilitating mental illnesses that actually impair you.

Anyway, cue adorable montage set to “She’s A Rainbow” by the Stones, where they discuss the finer merits of cherry pie and behave as awkwardly as you’d expect. They meet in front of a window one night, and by using their reflections in the mirror, she explains, they can kiss and not touch. Hamish Linklater, playing the Interrogator, ruins this moment by pulling David out of his afterglow moment and into reality. David’s sitting in a white room with a red table, with the Interrogator and his associate, who spends the time during their conversation, silently whittling away a wolf. There, he encourages David to move on and talk about his suicide attempt, which we find out was a result of his girlfriend leaving him because his psychic powers were starting to manifest and he was hearing loud voices in his head and breaking entire kitchens due to stress. So, basically second puberty. We cut to him also recapping the scene for his therapist at the hospital, who notes that they never found a noose, only rope burns around his neck.

The Interrogator, in the present, encourages him to move on with his story. At the hospital, Syd sneaks into David’s room at night to have a not-cuddle sesh, and tells him that she’s getting the fuck out of the hospital. David’s a little upset about that, of course, and she tells him to get better so he can get out of there as well. He tries to kiss her, she pulls away, and we cut back to the present, where an incredulous The Interrogator asks him why he couldn’t kiss her. David starts to freak out a bit, and asks for a break, and The Interrogator obliges. We follow the Interrogator as he exits the room, and we realize things aren’t as they seem. The room is a small set in a large YMCA-like complex full of armed guards. David’s interrogation room is situated in the middle of a swimming pool, and the Interrogator heads towards the command center, above a basketball court. It’s an elegant shot, and sets up a fun conversation between the Interrogator and a suit who’s watching the interrogation from a CCTV in the command center. They talk for a minute about how he doesn’t know how to use his powers, and how absolutely incredible those powers are. It’s here we first hear anyone mention the word “Mutant,” which is how you would know that any of this is related to Marvel or the X-Men at all if you came into this completely blind. The suit says they should kill him, and the Interrogator instead asks if he could push him a bit, which is absolutely is the worst possible decision anyone could make with a mentally unstable all-powerful mutant in their interrogation room. The suit says fine, but if David acts weird they’ll have to take it to LEVEL TWO. Commercial.

 
 

Legion TV

Back to David, trapped in the interrogation room with the whittler, staring awkwardly at his lunch. David asks if he could be alone, and the whittler leaves after placing the wolf he’s freshly carved on the interrogation table. Flashback time! In one of the really memorable scenes in this pilot, we witness the full version of David destroying his kitchen back in the good ol’ days, where his mental powers manifest and ruin everything. The assorted floating items — silverware, appliances, plates — cocoon around him after he’s cut by a knife and it’s here we get our first glimpse at the only-hinted at antagonist that’s meant to keep you coming back for more, The Man with the Yellow Eyes. He’s fat, short and ugly, and he has yellow eyes. To the present! The Interrogator returns with what looks like a giant oscilloscope and some henchmen straight out of The Life Aquatic, and David starts to get stressed out again when he says they’re going to hook him up to it. He was jus’ foolin’ to see if they were scared of him, which OF COURSE THEY ARE, and the Interrogator fulfills his narrative function by asking him about the incident at the mental hospital.

Flashback to the day Syd left the institution, and David rushes out to greet her right before she goes. Being a dumbass and an asshole, he leans in and gives her a peck on the lips and they swap bodies. Turns out she has powers too, and that’s why she didn’t want to be touched! One of the ways we know this is because the camera inverts! It’s topsy-turvy and upside down! David (in Syd’s body) is dragged out of the room by the therapist, and Syd (in David’s body) starts to really freak the fuck out after being surrounded by all the non-superpowered patients in a mental hospital. Which, who can blame her? In addition to the stress of the moment, she’s in another dude’s body with crazy ass superpowers (which, unlike car insurance, doesn’t seem to follow the person) so bad things start to happen. We cut back to the therapist and David, who are trapped in a little doctor’s office, and the room shakes. David looks in the mirror, sees Syd’s body, and touches his boobs.

We jump back to the present just long enough for David to get stressed out again and this time cause the Interrogator’s fancy pen to flop about on the table, before we head back to the past. The therapist and David head out into the hall, where ominous red lighting has covered the typically sun-light main room of the hospital. They follow a series of flashing red lights to a hallway where they discover with horror that the doors merged with the walls, trapping all of the patients behind solid concrete. David follows a string of broken glass on the floor to a pool of blood dripping from the ceiling, and we see that Plaza has been straight-up fucking fused to the ceiling, Philadelphia Experiment-style. The therapist backs away to presumably get help, and David listens to the wall. Syd’s on the other side, banging on it and freaking out. We jump to the present, where the Interrogator asks for clarification: did Syd and David really switch bodies? We get a cool superimposition of their two faces in different points of time, and commercial.

 
 

David (as Syd) is escorted out to the street by the therapist, where a black car pulls out of the street, and David sees the Interrogator getting out of it along with two other people, a black man and a woman (they’ll be important later!). He freaks the fuck out in the present, the oscilloscope goes nuts, and The Interrogator gets psychically stabbed in the face with his flying pen. Holy shit! The room explodes in slow motion to prog rock, and David’s sprayed with knock-out gas that sends him falling to the floor. Back in the past, David (as Syd), enjoys a cup of coffee, and transforms back into David (as David). He knows this because he touches his chest and his boobs aren’t there. Commercial.

Let loose from the hospital in the past, David goes to his sister’s on Halloween, and ruins her and her husband’s night by asking them if he can stay with them and eat their waffles. She takes him to their basement, where she has a bed made up for him, and they hug. As soon as she leaves, Plaza returns for some more free verse. She’s straight-up dead and she knows it, and she blames him for having the psychic powers in the first place. Sitting on a tricycle, she tells him that the government’s after him and they’re going to kill him. She’s super happy about it and laughing, and David breaks a lamp that he’s had since he was a child with his psychic powers. His sister comes down, and in perhaps what may be the only sensible action taken by a character on this show, removes all the sharp objects from the room. Commercial.

We return to a Serge Gainsbourg-soundtracked, Bollywood dancing dream sequence, and though it’s fun, Syd tells him to wake up and bam, we’re back in the present. David’ submerged in a pool full of water, and the Interrogator tells him he’ll get shocked if he acts out. The Interrogator wants to know where Syd is, and David tells him that he has no idea where she is, that she disappeared. Back in the past, after trying to find Syd, David realizes he’s being followed by two of the other people who got out of the car earlier, and we have a fun aspect ratio change as he tries to escape from them. He evades them until he comes across Syd, who tells him not to stop moving. She’s communicating with him inside his memory to try and evade the government who can’t hear them talk in his head. He’s in a government facility, she says, and they’re going to bust him out. She tells him to slowly slide out of his chair, and to go under the water when he sees “the lights,” and not to come up until he sees her face. It’s then that he’s snatched away by said government, and is thrown in the back of a van. Commercial.

 
 

Present: David is asked by the Interrogator to tell him who the people who came to get him from the hospital were. He realizes that the Interrogator wasn’t there getting out of the car, and that a tiny old white lady was there instead. The lights start to flash behind the interrogator, and David slips off his seat and into the water and bam! Huge fucking explosion. Charred corpses fall into the water, and David swims up to Syd, flanked by his two pursuers, now revealed to us as members of Syd’s gang. They’re rushed out into the show’s budge- I mean, an action sequence, full of psychic dudes throwing giant stones and motherfuckers around, as the group tries to make it to the shore. As they hit the beach, David stops Syd, and asks her if it’s all real. If she’s real. And she says she is. Because that means so much! They tell each other they love each other, and David is introduced on the shore to Ms. Byrd (Jean Smart), the lady in the car from earlier! She asks him to take her hand, and he does. Roll credits, everybody!

Stray thoughts and observations:

— Dan Stevens is doing a pretty good job with what he’s been given here, but Legion’s twitchiness and nervousness get in the way of some of his more emotive and humourous moments. It’s also funny that he’s sporting the kind of American accent that’s in vogue amongst his ilk at the moment (see: Cumberbatch, Benedict and Laurie, Hugh for more of what I mean). The rest of the cast fares about as well, though the show is kind of anesthetized due to its aesthetic and themes so it’s really hard to get attached or care about anybody as of yet. Aside from the immortal Aubrey Plaza, and I only care that she goes away.

— The sound design, the editing, and the cinematography are the real reasons to watch this show. The Wes Anderson influence only really shows up in the flashbacks, and it’s sonically like anything else on TV. I can’t stress enough how well this is made. This is an impossibly good-looking production, and it’s done so well that it’s easy to forgive a lot of the more glaring flaws in the show. The awkward humor doesn’t necessarily work in dialogue, but the visual gags (the bollywood dance, David’s sister taking the sharp objects out of the basement) land really well. Costume design is on point as well, and I’m a huge fan of David’s outfit in the institution and its mid-’80s Wolverine coloring.

 
 

— I wonder what we’d get if we excluded Hamish Linklater entirely, or save the reveal of his character for the absolute end of the episode. I know Hawley wants to use the time distortion as a venue for mind-fuckery, but there’s enough genuine weirdness here to do that already, and it continues to break apart the show’s flow. He’s an excuse to have a framing device and also an excuse to have David destroy an asshole’s face before the hour mark and people start to tune out.

— This is going to be a fun soundtrack if we’re already pulling out the Gainsbourg.

— I really want to see Dan Stevens with Legion’s haircut from the comics.

— Now we get to see if this thing can maintain this quality for all eight episodes, but given Noah Hawley’s track record, I’m sure it’ll at least be interesting. I’ll be here each week with my thoughts on the episode and hopefully a less intense recap (SO MUCH STORY THIS WEEK). See you next time, same-Legion channel, same-Legion time.

 
 

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.