Am I crazy or is this really happening?
It's a question being asked with increasing frequency these days in real life and on the small screen, where series exploring memory, subjectivity and psychological trauma proliferate.
Last year brought us "Stranger Things," "The OA" and "Westworld.” Arriving a little over a month into the new year is “Legion," a disorienting labyrinth of a show that's as seductive and visually arresting as it is frustrating.
Written by Noah Hawley, the creative force behind "Fargo" — the (rightfully) lauded anthology series inspired by the Coen brothers midwestern noir— "Legion" is, like several other current series, adapted from Marvel Comics. And similar to the Netflix Marvel adaptations "Jessica Jones," "Daredevil" and "Luke Cage," “Legion,” premiering Wednesday on FX, is far from a straightforward tale of superheroes in spandex.
The series follows David Haller (Dan Stevens), a tormented young man suffering from what has been diagnosed as schizophrenia but, it is slowly revealed, may actually be superhuman telepathic and telekinetic abilities. When we first meet David, he's living in the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital — and yes, that's a Stanley Kubrick reference — where his closest companion is Lenny, a wild-eyed, foul-mouthed addict played with twitchy glee by Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation”).
David's mind-numbingly institutionalized routine is upended when he meets an alluring patient, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller; and yes, that's a Pink Floyd reference). Though she refuses to let him touch her for reasons that eventually become clear, the two fall in love and, after a mysterious series of events, break free from Clockworks.
Under pursuit by shadowy government forces apparently threatened by his existence, David is taken in by Melanie Bird (Jean Smart; terrific as ever), a therapist whose hideaway in the woods looks like something out of the pages of Dwell magazine. With her guidance, David goes through the painstaking process of revisiting his own past, attempting to sort delusion from reality.
With darker hair, a convincing American accent and a dash of eyeliner, Stevens, best known for his turn on "Downton Abbey," does almost enough to make us forget he ever played Cousin Matthew (though true fans will #neverforget). Without overdoing the tics or other actor-ly mannerisms, he conveys David's suffering and anguish.
In two seasons at the helm of "Fargo," Hawley has shown a rare gift for taking previously established narrative worlds and familiar aesthetics and making them his own. While I can't speak to Hawley's treatment of the original character from the comics, written by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz and initially appearing in 1985, "Legion" is, like "Fargo," a densely allusive series that borrows heavily from other sources while feeling wholly unique.
In addition to the hat tips to Kubrick and Floyd, "Legion" is reminiscent of Wes Anderson (symmetrical framing and British Invasion soundtrack), Michel Gondry (characters wandering through their memories) and maybe even David Lynch (general trippiness).
Hawley is more than a show runner, he is also a skilled director who pays as much to the visual and aural elements of his story as to plotting and dialogue. "Legion" is a meticulously realized piece of filmmaking. Credit is due Hawley's production designer, Michael Wylie, and costume designer, Carol Case, who've created a look — part '60s mod, part contemporary minimalism — that seems intentionally difficult to pin down.
The same goes for Hawley's use of subjective camera angles, fractured timelines and jarring visual effects to convey David's seemingly tenuous grasp of reality.
The result is a profoundly and powerfully disorienting experience for even the most diligent viewer, who may want to break out the red string and create a conspiracy board at home to track all the wrinkles in David's story. Although this sense of confusion speaks to Hawley's skill as a filmmaker, at some point the lack of definitive information and overall opacity become vexing.
This frustration is compounded by the show's surprising lack of humor. At least in its early stages, "Legion" is short on the wit and colorful banter that made "Fargo," both the series and the film, so exceptional. It is at times irritatingly self-serious, with scenes weighed down by portentous dialogue and characters who don't seem to have unique voices.
"Legion" is never less than a feast for the eyes, but whether your patience will be rewarded with anything approaching clarity or revelation, I honestly can't say. Three episodes in, and I'm still scratching my head and unsure the narrative, to the extent there is one, has progressed meaningfully.
To watch "Legion" is to venture down a confounding rabbit hole, but Hawley's presence is enough to keep me invested — for now.
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