Emmy spotlight: Aubrey Plaza (‘Legion’) is unexpected standout with dramatic turn opposite Dan Stevens

Has any performer ever earned an Emmy nomination for portraying a parasite? (No, not for being a parasite, but for playing one.) If Emmy voters want to make some history, they could do far worse than to consider Aubrey Plaza, the unexpected standout of FX’s new science-fiction series “Legion” as this year’s Best Drama Supporting Actress.

Most television fans will likely recognize Plaza from her seven-season run on the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation” in which she portrayed April Ludgate, a dry-witted cynic who brought a touch of Morticia Addams to the Pawnee City Hall. Although her performance was widely praised by the nation’s television critics, Plaza, like most of her “Parks” co-stars, never received an Emmy nomination.

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SPOILERS AHEAD:

However, Plaza happened to meet Noah Hawley, the creator of the acclaimed TV version of “Fargo,” who began to consider her for a dramatic role for his new FX series “Legion,” based on the Marvel comic book character. It is the first TV series to be connected to the world of “X-Men.” Hawley had the daring idea to cast Plaza as Lenny Busker, an addict who at first seems to be the best friend of David Haller (Dan Stevens, SAG winner for the “Downton Abbey” ensemble) with whom Lenny shares a space in a psychiatric hospital.

What’s unusual about the casting is that Hawley envisioned the character as a 50-year-old man and wrote him that way. And Plaza’s one demand upon accepting the role was to keep the dialogue intact, which lends a remarkable gender fluidity in the way in which Plaza approaches the role, quite unlike any other performance on TV.

At first Lenny is presented merely as a best bud to David, not unlike the sidekick role that April served on “Parks and Rec.” But things change, and it’s then that Plaza begins to show what she can do. Lenny is actually one of the many manifestations of a parasite that has been in David’s brain since he was a child that is determined to control him. Lenny appears to David in all kinds of personae (even as the hospital’s therapist!) to urge him to take the most destructive path possible.

‘Legion’ reviews: Trippy ‘X-Men’ drama is a hit with critics

Plaza has an array of choices for Emmy submissions, but I would like to suggest “Chapter 6,” in which Plaza has a standout musical number (yes, a musical number!) as she dons her fishnets and heels. She struts through the many moments that we have seen of David’s psyche, all to the haunting vocals of Nina Simone performing “Feeling Good.” It’s a true Emmy moment.

Is Aubrey Plaza delivering a standout comic performance? Or is it a chilling one? Or both? The nation’s critics may disagree on that but appear united in their praise for Plaza’s work:

Team TVLine: “[W]hen Lenny revealed to David her horrible plans for him, Plaza was flat-out terrifying, planting her foot firmly in David’s crotch and then giving him a lapdance while telling him how she planned to use his mutant powers to her advantage. We’re still not sure if Lenny is a real person, or just a jagged shard of David’s fractured psyche. (Honestly, there’s a lot we’re not sure of on this show.) But no matter who or what Lenny is, Plaza has been a wickedly funny delight every minute she’s been on screen.”

Anna Silman, New York Magazine: “Aubrey Plaza is currently serving up the most terrifying performance on TV…One of the best villainous performances in recent memory. For someone often typecast as dry and restrained, it’s a true joy to see her unleashed.”

Beth Elderkin, Gizmodo: “Plaza has held nothing back — not really chewing the scenery so much as licking it clean and leaving the bones for the dogs.”

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