Discovering “Downton Abbey” dreamboat Dan Stevens would be back on TV screens every week was very exciting for us all — but those expecting to run into the devastatingly handsome heir Matthew Crawley are in for a big surprise.
Just as “Legion,” though based on an unpredictable “X-Men” villain-turned-hero dating back to the 1980s, distances itself from other superhero fare in a lot of ways, Stevens has made himself unrecognizable. Gone are Matthew’s long blonde locks, and that come hither friendly smile is nowhere to be seen — and that’s just “Downton.” His post-“Downton” work (“High Maintenance,” the incredible “The Guest”) couldn’t have prepared us any better for his David Haller, a mentally ill, possibly mutant character with telekinetic powers, in Noah Hawley’s mind-bending and passionate fantasy.
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“Legion” feels nothing like “Jessica Jones,” or “Agents of SHIELD,” it bears no resemblance to any CW series like “Arrow” or “Supergirl.” With its disregard for linear storytelling and genre-defying special effects, it’s also incomparable to any of the superhero blockbuster films infiltrating theaters. “Legion” time jumps and changes perspective without notice. Three quarters of the premiere is expressionist, confusing. We don’t know what’s real: David is bipolar, suffers from dissociative identity disorder, has mutant powers, or all three.
His best friend in the mental hospital he’s been placed is Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza), a tweaked out yet oddly optimistic drug-addict. New patient and his new girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), refuses to be touched by another human. We don’t know who to trust, which characters are evil — we aren’t even meant to pinpoint what year this is all taking place. (Especially confusing, given Hawley’s eye for era that informs so much of “Fargo’s” sensibility.)
Shows with this many plot holes and questions are usually frustratingly unwatchable. At one point, the entire cast starts performing a Bollywood style dance number. Why? No idea. But there’s something about “Legion” — the ensemble, the poetic moments , Haller’s wounded eyes; Hawley’s talent for creating such uniquely visceral scenes — that makes it so oddly addictive.
The special effects aren’t just for shock value entertainment like in most comic book series. They create visual images which help narrate the story: We can see what’s happening in David’s brain, and he thinks way differently from the average human. So in that respect, it makes sense that we can’t fully understand what’s happening. We’re watching things unfold from a broken perspective, as David struggles to figure what’s real and what’s only happening in his head, it’s part of his illness.
We’re not sure how closely the TV series connects to the original Claremont/Sienkiewicz stories, or the decades of Marvel canon since then that has featured David over the years — much less the films and Netflix series — but we know that Hawley’s focus is on the way David navigates his disordered perceptions, and how he fights his way back to himself. In that context, timeframe seems more than beside the point — even “what’s real” fades into the background, like “Inception’s” spinning top. It doesn’t matter.
“What if your problems are in your head?” Syd asks, during group therapy. “What if they’re not even problems?”
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There’s a trippy meta self-awareness to “Legion” which makes this series feel very intimate: As we’re forced outside the box, so too are we called upon to help David order the narrative. The focus is kept on what certain dialogue and situations make you feel; the game of trying to figure out if it’s real or not couldn’t matter less. And by doing that, sitting close by while David figures it out, we’re embracing him. Ill or mutant, guilty or innocent, we — and the universe of the show — are never allowed into a position of shaming the character for what makes him different. It’s his world, we wouldn’t dare.
We have no clue what will happen next, but since it involves Jean Smart as Melanie Bird — the powerful, quirky, steely caretaker of this crew of misfits — the future looks bright. As episode 2 invites us into her world — and the various forces that may or may not be looking to play David as a pawn in some long game we haven’t seen yet — we’re sure our questions will be laid to rest, followed by yet more more questions. Either way, we’ll be sticking around to find out.
You don’t see something this special, different — this new — very often: “Legion” is a mutant.
“Legion” airs on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.
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