Noah Hawley attempted the inconceivable with FX’s Emmy-winning limited series Fargo. How could he attempt to orchestrate a spin-off series within the seemingly hermetically sealed Coen Brothers universe? To a very few Coen devotees, the verdict remains a negative one on Fargo‘s two seasons. But the finished product, while casually referring to the Coen’s classic film, remains uniquely a Hawley vision. With Legion, Hawley returns to FX in a series spinning off from the X-Men comic lore. Here, Hawley works his mad-genius direction to great effect with a lesser-known product. Viewers most assuredly get the feeling that Hawley and his cast are cracking their knuckles, warming up for the big show.
Legion hails from the X-Men universe, yes, but the connections to the original material or to the feature films remain tentative. The property stars Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as David Haller, a schizophrenic mutant with incredibly powerful psychic abilities. In the comics, Haller is the son of Professor Charles Xavier, but the connection remains unspoken thus far in the series. Haller spends much of the pilot in a mental institution where he meets Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller) who also possesses mutant abilities – physical touch allows her to switch bodies with whomever she comes in contact. A single kiss provides the catalyst for much of the action within the pilot. Let’s just say things go poorly.
Don’t worry if the plot fails to resonate with you. You don’t have to be a comic book devotee to appreciate this material. Hawley directs the pilot with confidence and an exciting sense of visual flair. He renders David’s tenuous grasp on sanity and reality through extravagant camerawork, garish colors, jump-cut edits, and unsettling music by Jeff Russo. If the split screens of Fargo Season 2 felt superfluous to you, wait ’till you get a load of Legion‘s kinetic marvels.
Hawley’s direction is integral to the material, but Legion would suffer from the “all style and little substance” syndrome without a tremendous central performance. Keeping off the 30 pounds he lost post-Abbey, Stevens’s gaunt, angular face and ice-blue eyes serve him well here. He dives into the character with a focused, yet manic, energy, giving the audience a properly sympathetic protagonist. Stevens’s performance recalls the tremendous work of Mr. Robot‘s Emmy-winning Rami Malek. Both actors hail from modest beginnings but are able to illustrate mental illness in new and intriguing ways. Stevens’s ability to surprise here seems endless, and here’s hoping the Television Academy considers this brave and unique performance.
Legion (along with Taboo) proves that FX isn’t afraid to take chances with pulpy material. Unlike Taboo, Legion pays off in spaces based on the evidence available in the pilot. Here’s hoping Hawley and Stevens sustain the momentum for the 8-episode series run.