Legion Season 1 – Sui Generis

Given that it is downtime season for many TV programs, it’s an opportune moment to revisit Season 1 of FX’s recent masterpiece, Legion.

When the studio announced that it would be adapting the material, many were skeptical.  To begin with, Charles Xavier’s son, David Haller, was by no means a mainstay of the X-Men universe.  If anything, he was a third-stringer.  To mine the content to create a viable show was, in my mind, a herculean task.  But by the time Season 1 had concluded, I was persuaded.  To quote the soccer manager Jurgen Klopp, many doubters had turned into believers.

One is hard-pressed to describe the premise of the show.  A friend had once asked, “what’s it about?”  And the best I could muster was – a psychological, visual spectacle; part Inception, and a very tiny part X-Men.  Looking at it another way, it’s almost like a Wes Anderson-helmed superhero production.  And perhaps the difficulty that one has in attempting to pigeon-hole Legion into a particular genre is what makes it interesting.

The show is spearheaded by the visionary Noah Hawley, the architect of Fargo.  The pilot, written and directed by Hawley, plunges the audience into a madcap universe.  And from the first minute, as The Who’s “Happy Jack” kicks in, you know you are in for a psychedelic ride.

It’s a stylistic masterpiece and a visual treasure trove.  Fans of Wes Anderson will no doubt pick up on the countless nods to the quirky director – from the wide, establishing camera angles to the beautifully-designed, perfectly tailored costumes.  David Haller’s gym jacket was probably recycled from Chas Tenenbaum’s wardrobe.  And the hilarious Team Zissou-like beanie-jacket combination that the government technicians/underlings sport will evoke a smile.  The Eye, with his sinister, wood-carving antics looks like a nod to Willem Dafoe’s JG Jopling in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The soundtrack is understated genius, the punk/rock n roll riffs slotting in perfectly.  Taking a page from Stranger Things’ book, the background synth bass hums/drones hauntingly in the asylum scenes.  The camera work is notable.  From the well-executed slow-mo shots to the action-packed, guns-blazing continuous shot in the escape scene, it is simple yet effective.

Clockworks is an optical wonder.  The asylum is a kaleidoscope of colors – more fun-house than mad-house.  We are offered a smorgasbord of memorable vignettes, from the enchanting and dissonant field of television sets in David’s mind to the hippie dance scene.  1960s/70s Pantone shades are splashed across the show – a breath of fresh air from the grittiness of much of today’s television.

But it’s not all happy-happy though.  The darkness that resides in David is menacing and disturbing, as the camera ever so often pans to subtly reveal his grotesque, demonic Id lurking.  It’s also particularly chilling as the asylum wards’ doors are literally erased from existence.  One almost expects to see one of HR Geiger’s creatures lying in wait.

David’s fractured psyche provides the perfect launch-pad, and is fertile ground, for the mind, space and time-bending Inception-like scenes.  The show repeatedly threatens to tear down the proverbial fourth wall, with its abundant body-swapping, mind-bending shenanigans.  Soon enough, and pretty early on, we learn to question the reality of almost every scene.  Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny seems to exist within and outside of David’s fevered mind.  Time and space are warped, bent and reformed in so many Groundhog Day-like moments.  And at the end of the pilot, one pauses to consider if the glamorous Jean Smart’s Melanie Bird and her merry squad actually exist, as David asks Sydney “Is all of this real?”

The cast is terrific, in particular, Dan Stevens (as the titular character), the zany Audrey Plaza (as evil Lenny) and Jean Smart’s Ms Bird.

David Haller establishes himself in the leading role, alternating between vulnerable child and thermonuclear weapon of mass destruction.  He simultaneously channels wonder/innocence and insanity, evoking both sympathy for and a fear of David.  A notable scene involves the two Davids, where Stevens’ rational mind is personified by a British-accented (Dan Stevens’ lingua franca accent) David Haller.  Rachel Keller’s Sydney Barrett shares some chemistry with Haller, but the character unfortunately develops into a convenient plot device on many occasions.

Aubrey Plaza is the other notable thespian.  From likeable side-kick, she evolves (or devolves) in increasing levels of creepiness.  The change is subtle and well-paced.  And soon enough, we are faced with a raging, full-on maniac Lenny.

After her performances in Fargo and 24, Jean Smart proves that she is by no means a one (or two) –trick pony.  The scenes where she interacts with a confused, absent-minded Oliver Bird are tender and poignant.  We feel the longing and yearning, yet utter contentment as she is reunited with her long-lost husband.

But the standout character is Jermaine Clement’s always-dapper Oliver Bird.  Clement, of Flight of the Conchords fame, demonstrates that he isn’t just a run-of-the-mill comedian.  He grabs almost every scene he is in by the throat – from his soliloquies in his icy abode to his jazzy renditions.  Clement is crazy, wise, scatterbrained and brilliant – all at the same time.  A memorable scene is Bird’s wacky and hypnotic conducting performance to the tune of Ravel’s Bolero (probably my favourite scene in the entire series).  Hopefully, we will see more of the virtuoso Clement in succeeding seasons.

A major connect to the comic universe becomes clear, as we learn that Amal Farouk, the ancient villain known as the Shadow King, and Prof. X’s one-time sparring partner, is actually a parasite living inside David’s mind. The analogy to cordyceps is fitting.  Of course, Farouk also happens to be Lenny, as well as The Angriest Boy in the World.  Oh yes, and he happens to be King (a clever reference) as well. I might not look at beagles the same way.  Kudos to the producers for settling on this macabre, visually-disturbing antagonist, which looks nothing like his comic-book iteration.  We also learn that (surprise, surprise) David is really Charlie’s kid – given up for adoption at a young age.  The momentum builds to the final battle, which unravels the way you would pretty much expect.

One issue with the show is the plot sequence, which can confuse and obfuscate.  As it jumps through space and time, it can be difficult to follow at times, and a number of viewers of the pilot have expressed that it can be quite bewildering.  But for those who haven’t persisted, my suggestion is to stick with it.  For the pilot plays like the first chapter of a book, and at the end of the season, the full picture becomes clear.

The true stars of Legion are the mood, sound and visuals.  Each episode feels like you are going down the proverbial rabbit-hole (or perhaps a series of rabbit-holes).  The colors, mood and special effects are carefully and masterfully curated. After completing the series, you will feel like you’ve just stepped off an IMAX 3D, LSD-fuelled roller-coaster ride.

But what is probably the true achievement of Legion is being a product that is neither here nor there (not pejoratively-speaking), but something that stands quite apart from the hoi polloi of mundane TV.  To call it a unicorn might not do it justice.  It could very well be a Pegasus.

Verdict: A

Speculation Angle

In the comics, Legion’s 1st appearance (in cameo) was in New Mutants #25 (1985).  In April/May, 9.8 copies of the book fetched $150 on eBay.

The Shadow King’s first appeared  in X-Men #117 (1979).  9.8 graded slabs went for around $250 in eBay between March-May.

Given that the season of Legion has concluded, the ship has probably already sailed.  While the success of the show suggests that some interest in the books could be maintained, the fact that they are not first-tier characters in the X-Men universe, and that the characters exist on the TV rather than the movie screens, means that demand will likely be lukewarm at best.

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