In an early scene in the pilot for Legion, the new FX series based on the Marvel Comics character, Amy Haller (Katie Aselton) visits her brother, David (Dan Stevens), in a psychiatric hospital. It’s his birthday on Thursday, but in here, it’s just another day. “My 260th Thursday as a passenger on the cruise ship mental health,” David deadpans. It says a lot about the mainstream dominance of the genre to note that Legion, which premieres tonight, is a superhero show for misfits.
Stevens is excellent as David Haller, a.k.a. Legion, who in the X-Men comics is Charles Xavier’s mutant son; in the first three episodes, at least, the show doesn’t reference Xavier, known as Professor X. At the start of the series, David is shut up in a facility called Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital — the name a clear reference to A Clockwork Orange, from which the show borrows its ’70s-style, avocado-and-orange color scheme, although it doesn’t make clear where and when it’s taking place. The décor screams ’70s kitsch but the gadgetry is much more contemporary, and the flippy, shellacked bobs and prim collared dresses many of the women wear are straight from the 1960s.
If all this seems like it might disorient the viewer, well, bingo: That appears to be precisely Legion’s goal. The show returns to the same scenes and images again and again, memories buried deep in David’s mind, or maybe dreams; it’s not always clear if what we’re seeing is a scene from his past, a nightmare from the present, or just a straight-up hallucination. Random images add to the sense of confusion; at one point in the pilot, the action abruptly cuts to a secluded field with TV screens sticking up from the ground like scarecrows, each tuned to a different station; at another, David’s eyes rest on a man in camouflage, hiding in the foliage of the Clockworks common area.
At Clockworks, David’s closest friend is a fellow patient named Lenny, a cackling lesbian junkie with red-rimmed eyes and Girl, Interrupted-messy hair. But he soon meets a young woman named Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), who startles him out of his medicated numbness during a group therapy session. “You know who else wasn’t normal? Picasso. Einstein,” she insists. She questions whether she and her fellow patients need to be treated at all: “What if your problems aren’t in your head? What if they aren’t even problems?”
David promptly asks Syd to be his girlfriend. She accepts, on the condition that they never touch — not even holding hands. That’s not quite as cold as it sounds; Syd has a condition that causes people to switch bodies with her upon contact. She tells David they’re not crazy, and that the traits that have landed them in Clockworks aren’t flaws at all. They’re “what makes you you.”
Legion isn’t the only recent series to re-cast mental illness in a heroic light; shows like UnREAL and Mr. Robot feature lead characters whose brilliance is the flip side of their psychological anguish. With the help of Syd and a few other friendly mutants, David breaks out of Clockworks and finds himself in another institution, this one dedicated to helping people with powers like David’s understand and harness their skills. This facility, too, looks kind of like a resort, or at least a very pricey rehab facility-cum-spa. It’s run by Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), a therapist who helps guide David through his “memory work” and “talk work.”
Legion consummately fuses the superhero and mental-health worlds; one of David’s therapists, Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), tells him that Melanie thinks he might be “the key” to “winning the war.” Despite her insistence that David maintain a rigorous therapy routine, she doesn’t think he’s schizophrenic at all. Their work is not about curing David but “map[ping] the network” of his memories so he can reach his full potential.
On the level of spectacle, Legion is a treat, a jelly donut oozing with concentrated flavor. Creator Noah Hawley named the character Syd Barrett after the founder of Pink Floyd; at New York Comic Con in October, Hawley cited Dark Side of the Moon as an influence, describing the album as “the soundscape of mental illness.” The series opens with a stylish sequence set to the Who’s “Happy Jack,” in which we see David morph from a cheery baby to a troubled teen to an ill adult. Spectacular explosions and swirling airborne objects abound.
It’s visually rich, dynamic storytelling, but exactly what the story is, er, I’ll get back to you. The fragmentary nature of the show — all those recurring dreams and memories — often muddies the action, sapping some of its narrative tension and getting in the way of character development. But three episodes in, you get the sense that Hawley intended to plunge viewers into the same kind of confusion that plagues David.
Like Marvel’s Netflix series Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, Legion doesn’t appear to take place in a supernatural world; it’s more stylistically distinct than the Netflix shows, but it still feels like a version of real life. The title characters of those series were outcasts too, set apart by their freakish abilities, but they were clearly heroes, using their powers to help the powerless. David Haller is a different beast — a true anti-hero, one who’ll be lucky if he can help himself.
In that way, Legion does feel like real life. Like Westworld — not to mention TV viewers post-DVR and streaming — the show basks in the possibilities of stopping time. David and his team of mutant therapists carry out a task that for most people is a potent fantasy: pausing and rewinding the stuff of life, wading through the muck to figure out the exact moment when things went wrong.
Legion premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.