Tired of the overwhelming number of superhero shows and films around at the moment? Then you probably groaned to see yet another one added to the list with the arrival of Legion, a Marvel Studios mini-series based on a minor character from the X-Men comics. But don’t come to any hasty conclusions: this is a superhero story unlike anything you’ve seen before; indeed, it’s unlike any other show, period.
The central character is David Haller, a psychiatric patient diagnosed with severe schizophrenia. Among other things he has hallucinations in which he is a powerful mutant with telepathic and telekinetic abilities, which is of course complete nonsense. But an encounter with a fellow patient leads to him leaving the hospital and being taken in by a group of similarly gifted people who teach David that his abilities are very real, and that his powers are needed if the mutants are to overcome persecution from the government’s sinister Division 3…
Well, that’s one way of reading the surreal first two episodes of Legion. Another is to say that David is still in hospital and undergoing a complete dissociative break from reality; any time you think that the show has decided which ‘reality’ it’s pursuing, there will be something happening that throws you back into uncertainty. David is the ultimate unreliable narrator, unable to tell what’s real and what isn’t, and we’re in the same boat as everything that happens is seen through his eyes and experiences.
While there are some excellent if unusual performances from Rachel Keller and Aubrey Plaza, and an inscrutable and magisterial contribution from Jean Smart, the fact that this is David’s show means that it’s the performance of Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens that is the most important one with regard to Legion’s ultimate success. And Stevens does indeed deliver a stunning, mesmerising portrayal of David and all his quirks and vulnerabilities, believably troubled but also funny and charismatic. It’s the sort of part that any actor would surely give their left arm to get, and Stevens doesn’t waste a single second of the opportunity.
The other main player in Legion is the creator and lead writer Noah Hawley, who is also the showrunner responsible for the excellent Fargo TV spin-off of the Coen Brothers movie of the same name. As well as writing the hour-long pilot episode he also directs it and shows a fizzing visual style that means the screen is a constant whirl of invention and vitality. My favourite scene from the pilot was a dreamlike song-and-dance sequence which also highlights the brilliant soundtrack, consisting of a great choice of songs coupled with a terrific soundtrack from composer Jeff Russo.
With all that gushing said and done, it’s actually unfair to review something as wildly original and unpredictable as Legion after just two episodes, simply because it’s utterly impossible to know what’s going on or where it’s going to end up at the conclusion of its eight-episode run. Hopefully it will live up to the explosion of creativity that it’s shown thus far and not falter when it comes to making the inevitable landing back on firm ground, but whatever happens the trip is certainly worth taking.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Legion is currently being shown in the UK on the Fox channel on Thursdays at 9pm.