'Legion' Is A Fun, Fast-Paced TV Adaptation Of The Marvel Comic | KERA News

'Legion' Is A Fun, Fast-Paced TV Adaptation Of The Marvel Comic

Feb 7, 2017
Originally published on February 7, 2017 12:30 pm

There are two things viewers should know right from the start about Legion, which premieres Wednesday night on FX. One is that it doesn't look, or feel, like a drama based on a comic book — it's more like a next-generation version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, as filtered through H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe. The other is that it comes from Noah Hawley, who managed to take an already great movie — the Coen Brothers' Fargo — and use it as inspiration for a couple of equally terrific Fargo miniseries.

Hawley's TV versions of Fargo are all about character and acting, and plot twists, and deliciously rich visuals. The same is true of Legion — especially about the visuals. Now that I think of it, that's the third thing you need to know about Legion in advance: You have to watch it. I mean, really watch it. No multi-tasking. I don't think I've ever seen a TV series that demands you watch it more attentively — or rewards that effort quite as much.

Images come so fast and furiously, it's impossible to make sense of them at first. But that's because Legion, as a TV show, is reflecting and refracting the perspective of its central character, David Haller, whose senses are bombarded the same way, and who feels just as overwhelmed.

The opening sequence shows us quick-cut images summarizing David's entire life to that point, to the tune of "Happy Jack" by the Who. But David's life is anything but happy. At the end of the montage, he tries to commit suicide by hanging himself.

David fails in the attempt, of course, or there'd be no show. But he awakens in a psychiatric hospital, where he's administered anti-psychotic drugs and placed in group therapy.

All we know about David, at this point, is what little he knows about himself. He's been institutionalized because he hears voices, has what he thinks are hallucinations and can barely function.

David is played by Dan Stevens, whom viewers may remember — but probably won't recognize — as the ill-fated Downton Abbey heartthrob Matthew Crawley. In Legion, Stevens' character is silent, sullen and jittery — even around his one friend in the hospital, Lenny, played by Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation.

But David perks up considerably when he encounters a quirky and opinionated new patient named Syd, played by Rachel Keller. She's not comfortable with human contact — and when she joins David's therapy group and sits down while David is talking, the therapist retains his cool, but both Lenny and David are clearly intrigued by her.

The more Syd talks, the more David comes out of his shell — making for the most improbable and inconvenient romantic relationship since Pushing Daisies. He asks her to be his boyfriend, and she says yes — but only if he promises not to touch her.

Apparently, this Legion series is based on a Marvel comic from the 1980s — an offshoot of The X-Men in which Legion, the superhero name eventually adopted by David, has a series of powers, and a very powerful genetic lineage. But Hawley starts this TV series with an origin story where the hero doesn't even know he's a hero, or that he has powers. David thinks he's delusional — and doesn't know why there are strangers, outside of the hospital, trying to find, kidnap and control him.

In the first three hours of the show made available for preview, there are no superhero costumes, and only the shadowy threat of a true villain. Instead, there are mysterious characters with mysterious motives, played by Jean Smart, Bill Irwin and others.

If you've seen either of Hawley's Fargo miniseries, he's probably already earned your trust. Legion will take trust, too, and commitment — three episodes in, it's just getting started, and many of those almost subliminal images will take that long to become clear. But wow, what a fun ride. What an audacious, impressive, unpredictable trip. And for Hawley, it's yet another amazingly original, and exciting, TV adaptation from a different medium.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has a review of "Legion," a new TV series inspired by a Marvel comic premiering Wednesday on the FX cable network. Superheroes from the Marvel comic book universe have established hit movie franchises based on characters from "The X-Men," "Iron Man," "The Avengers," "The Amazing Spider-Man" and others. Marvel characters have also been on TV lately in such series as "Jessica Jones" and "Daredevil" on Netflix and ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." David says "Legion" is TV's best comic book adaptation yet and by far the most visual.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Two things to know about "Legion" right from the start. One is that it doesn't look or feel like a drama based on a comic book. It's more like a next-generation version of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" as filtered through H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe. The other is that it comes from Noah Hawley, who managed to take an already great movie - the Coen brothers' "Fargo" - and use it as inspiration for a couple of equally terrific "Fargo" miniseries. Hawley's TV versions of "Fargo" are all about character and acting and plot twists and deliciously rich visuals.

The same is true of "Legion," especially about the visuals. That's the third thing, now that I think about it, you need to know about "Legion" in advance. You have to watch it. I mean, really watch it. No multitasking. I don't think I've ever seen a TV series that demands you watch it more attentively or rewards that effort quite as much. Images come so fast and furiously it's impossible to make sense of them at first, but that's because "Legion" as a TV show is reflecting and refracting the perspective of its central character, David Haller, whose senses are bombarded the same way and who feels just as overwhelmed.

The opening sequence shows us quick-cut images summarizing David's entire life to that point to the tune of "Happy Jack" by The Who. But David's life is anything but happy. At the end of the montage, he tries to commit suicide by hanging himself. He fails in the attempt, of course, or there'd be no show, but he awakens in a psychiatric hospital, where he's administered anti-psychotic drugs and placed in group therapy. All we know about David at this point is what little he knows about himself. He's been institutionalized because he hears voices, has what he thinks are hallucinations and can barely function.

David is played by Dan Stevens, whom viewers may remember but probably won't recognize as the ill-fated "Downton Abbey" heartthrob Matthew Crawley. In "Legion," his character David is silent, sullen and jittery, even around his one friend in the hospital, Lenny, played by Aubrey Plaza from "Parks And Recreation." But he perks up considerably when he encounters a quirky and opinionated new patient named Syd, played by Rachel Keller. She's not comfortable with human contact. And when she joins David's therapy group and sits down while David is talking, the therapist retains his cool, but both Lenny and David are clearly intrigued by her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")

DAN STEVENS: (As David Haller) I saw things.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Delusions, you mean. We talked about that. Your brain chemistry, how...

STEVENS: (As David Haller) Hey, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) ...Your illness simulates voices, all the hallucinations you describe, the devil with the yellow eyes. You have something to add?

RACHEL KELLER: (As Syd Barrett) No. Please keep talking so we can all pretend that our problems are just in our heads.

STEVENS: (As David Haller) What does that mean?

AUBREY PLAZA: (As Lenny Busker) It means that you're in here because somebody said you're not normal. Like, normal's this suit we're all supposed to - but you know who else wasn't normal? Picasso. Einstein.

KELLER: (As Syd Barrett) Ooh, I like her. I like you. You've got what the kids these days called moxie.

STEVENS: (As David Haller) You know, just so I'm clear, are you Einstein or Picasso in this scenario?

PLAZA: (As Lenny Busker) Whatever. All I'm saying is what if your problems aren't in your head? What if they aren't even problems?

BIANCULLI: The more Syd talks, the more David comes out of his shell, making for the most improbable and inconvenient romantic relationship since "Pushing Daisies."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")

KELLER: (As Syd Barrett) You know those cartoons in, like, magazines? There's a man on an island with, like, maybe a single palm tree? People say go to your happy place and that's what I think about.

STEVENS: (As David Haller) Well, that's sad.

KELLER: (As Syd Barrett) That's sad? You're in a mental hospital. All I'm saying is that thing they tell us is crazy, how I don't want to be handled or you see stuff and hear whatever, voices, that's what makes you you.

STEVENS: (As David Haller) Do you want to be my girlfriend?

KELLER: (As Syd Barrett) OK. But don't touch me.

STEVENS: (As David Haller) OK.

BIANCULLI: Apparently, this "Legion" series is based on a Marvel comic from the 1980s, an offshoot of "The X-Men" in which Legion, the superhero name eventually adopted by David, has a series of powers and a very powerful genetic lineage. But Noah Hawley, to start this TV series, begins with an origin story where the hero doesn't even know he's a hero or that he has powers. He thinks he's delusional and doesn't know why there are strangers outside of the hospital trying to find, kidnap and control him.

In the first three hours of the show made available for preview, there are no superhero costumes and only the shadowy threat of a true villain. Instead, there are mysterious characters with mysterious motives played by Jean Smart, Bill Irwin and others. If you've seen either of Noah Hawley's "Fargo" miniseries, he's probably already earned your trust.

"Legion" will take trust, too, and commitment. Three episodes in, it's just getting started, and many of those almost subliminal images will take that long to become clear. But wow, what a fun ride. What an audacious, impressive, unpredictable trip. And for Noah Hawley, it's yet another amazingly original and exciting TV adaptation from a different medium.

DAVIES: David Bianculli teaches TV and film at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." On tomorrow's show, documentary director Keith Maitland tells us about his new film, "Tower." It tells the story of the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas when a sniper took a position in a tower at the heart of campus and opened fire, killing 16 and wounding three dozen others. We'll also speak with Claire Wilson James, the first person shot in the attack. She was 18 and pregnant at the time. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.