FX has now dipped its toes into the superhero genre with the drama series “Legion” now airing Wednesday nights on the cable network. After its debut on February 8, the critics have weighed in, and with an 82 on Metacritic and 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this trippy cerebral drama looks like a stellar addition to the network’s celebrated roster. The second episode airs on February 15.
The series is inspired by an “X-Men” comic book of the same name. The story centers on David Haller (“Downton Abbey’s” Dan Stevens), who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a boy and has spent his life inside the walls of mental hospitals. David is also a mutant with potent telekinetic and reality bending powers, but he has no idea how to control him. Using the word “mutant” may bring to mind the larger world of the “X-Men” films (the show is mercifully set in a separate continuity from the films), but the series is much more concerned with the inner workings of David’s mind. Time jumps are frequent and the show constantly demands the audience pay attention to discern what is real and what is imagined.
The premiere was lauded by James Poniwozik (New York Times) as “a trippy tour de force, weaving seamlessly from apparition to (seeming) reality.” “Legion” he claims, “presents a superhero drama as psychic journey, distinguishing itself in an overcrowded genre by setting its most compelling drama in its protagonist’s mind. It’s no ordinary comic-book show: it’s a head trip, and it’s spectacular.”
The cerebral approach is thanks to series creator Noah Hawley, who found great success and Emmy Awards for the same network with “Fargo.” Alex McCown-Levy (AV Club) praises the creator’s vision, saying “Hawley is again demonstrating his interest isn’t in the canon of these pre-established universes or the complex mythology behind them. He cares about people—whether ordinary or gifted with immense powers—reacting to extraordinary events in unusual but realistic ways.” Oliver Sava (Vulture) agrees: “Hawley wants viewers to be bewildered by what’s happening onscreen, and that brings a sense of wonder to Legion that is lacking in more traditional superhero narratives.”
Sava continued on to single out the highly physical lead performance in his 4-star review. “Dan Stevens shows a new side of his acting ability on ‘Legion’, playing a jittery, anxious, frightened character desperate for stability and affection. He still holds on to his leading-man charisma, but there’s an intense vulnerability behind those piercing blue eyes, a weakness that begs the audience to care about David and care for him.”
Genre series face an uphill climb during awards season, but perhaps that could change with the help of this mutant. Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com) wrote that “What ‘Legion’ has that so many superhero TV shows lack (sorry, ‘Gotham’ fans) is a commitment to performance and character that transcends genre. We so often see superhero shows in which characters are defined by their powers or their relation to a villain…but ‘Legion’ works from character first, allowing all of David’s issues and powers to come from within.”
Robert Bianco (USA Today) best sums up the uniqueness of the series. “‘Legion’ is unlike any comic-book series TV has ever offered” he says. “Oh, superpowers will appear: telepathy, telekinesis and dream travel among them. But ‘Legion’ is more interested in the toll those powers take, and the result is a trippy, candy-colored, visually berserk psychological puzzle that makes you question what and who is real at all times.” Whether David Haller is invited to bring his mind bending powers to the Emmys remains to be seen. But given the critical response and FX’s recent awards plays for “The Americans,” “Atlanta,” “American Horror Story” and Hawley’s own “Fargo,” “Legion” is clearly a drama to keep an eye on.