"'Legion' is meant to be a show that is a state of mind. But the problem with TV is that there are commercials," Hawley said. "There's a hypnotic quality to the way we put it together. I need to get you out of your life in the first seven minutes of that show." -Noah Hawley interview on Variety
The way a story is told is as important as the story itself. However, when style is over emphasized and the story becomes secondary or layered too deeply, viewers become confused and lose interest. This is one of the reasons why so many television series have the same familiar look. And familiar is better in the world of TV.
So what happens when a television show comes along and refuses to be comfortably familiar? The creators of the show say, "we're going to set this story inside the main characters mind because it's about his view of the world anyway. And we'll let the audience figure it out like he does. And it's fine if the look and style of the world is futuristic or retro because his memories jump around in time as the story progresses. It will be funny and strange and trippey with lots of color washes and strange camera angles."
The show I'm referring to is Legion, the courageous experimental FX series that is actually the origin story for a particularly powerful mutant in the world of the X-men. The series was conceived by Noah Hawley (who also wrote many episodes and directed a few as well) hot off of his big hit with another quirky series, Fargo.
From FX's plot synopsis of Legion:
Legion, based on the Marvel Comics by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, is the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens) - a troubled young man who may be more than human.
Diagnosed as schizophrenic as a child, David has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years. Now in his early 30s and institutionalized once again, David loses himself in the rhythm of the structured regimen of life in the hospital: breakfast, lunch, dinner, therapy, medications, sleep. David spends the rest of his time in companionable silence alongside his chatterbox friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), a fellow patient whose life-long drug and alcohol addiction has done nothing to quell her boundless optimism that her luck is about to change. The pleasant numbness of David's routine is completely upended with the arrival of a beautiful and troubled new patient named Syd (Rachel Keller). Inexplicably drawn to one another, David and Syd share a startling encounter, after which he must confront the shocking possibility that the voices he hears and the visions he sees are the result of him being a mutant.
A haunted man, David escapes from the hospital and seeks shelter with his sister Amy (Katie Aselton). But Amy's concern for her brother is trumped by her desire to protect the picture perfect suburban life she's built for herself. Eventually, Syd guides David to Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), a nurturing but demanding therapist with a sharp mind and unconventional methods. She and her team of specialists - Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), Kerry (Amber Midthunder) and Cary (Bill Irwin) - open David's eyes to an extraordinary new world of possibilities.
The story itself is interesting, but not particularly original. What is absolutely dazzling about the show is its visual style. Using a combination of 60's British modern and Bauhaus minimalism, the show is awash in color and poetic imagery. Even the music/sound is a combination of 60's classic rock and ambient modern. And the editing of Legion is wonderful. Transitions between scenes can be abrupt or weirdly beautiful using architecture or furniture to wipe vertically to introduce the next scene. VFX is absolutely state of the art and supports the characters/story perfectly. Legion is an absolute feast for the eyes and ears.
What holds all of the strangeness together is the cast. Headed by British actor (doing a great American accent) is Dan Stevens, who holds the camera with his alternately humorous and pained performance. Playing opposite him is Rachel Keller who is a fascinating combination of blunt reason and vulnerability. I was also knocked out by the comic/absurd performance of Jemaine Clement as the amnesiac Oliver Bird. The antagonist, played in a great punk style by actress Aubrey Plaza is literally mesmerizing. The entire cast is uniformly excellent. Working on an odd show like this, with it's many VFX shots must have been hard. But they make it seem natural and ground the eccentricities of the style in real human feeling and a great sense of humor.
Legion is a brilliant TV series that deserves your time and attention. It is a show that defies expectations and moves towards being a work of art. Noah Hawley is unsparing in his commitment to originality and is willing to take chances in an industry that plays it safe. Legion will appeal to those who like to see something different, but viewers who like more traditional television will likely lose interest after a few episodes.
Legion isn't perfect, the pace can be too slow at times and some scenes can be indulgent, but you have never seen anything like it on Television. And that's a very, very good thing.
Links for Legion
FX Live is showing episodes of the series for free - http://www.fxnetworks.com/shows/legion
Full cast and additional behind-the-scenes videos - http://www.fxnetworks.com/shows/legion/cast-crew
Note: all photos are screen caps from the series.