Creating movies and television based on existing intellectual property is considered safe. This is why we’ve been flooded with IP content relentlessly for the better part of the past decade. But the further the IP exists apart from the core of the brand, the more freedom that’s given to play in the sandbox.
In the case of FX’s new show Legion, the core brand is The X-Men. And the one who gets to play in this sandbox of peripheral IP is Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley.
Snowy landscapes are a big part of the distinct visual and tonal mood Fargo. So, when Fargo ended its second season in December of 2015, there was not enough time for Hawley to write and shoot the third season before the end of that winter. Production on the third season would have to wait until the winter of 2016. (In fact, it started shooting in Alberta last month.) As a result, Hawley found himself with some time on his hands.
In the interim, he chose to tackle Legion. Created in the mid-80s by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, Legion is a lesser-known member of the considerable X-Men catalogue. How much this show is connected to the big screen X-Men incarnations is unknown. For that matter, how much the show will draw from the comics is also a mystery.
The pilot of Legion introduces us to David Haller (Dan Stevens) through a montage -- a normal, serene childhood that quickly gives way to emotionally disjointed and troubled teen years; all to the soundtrack of “Happy Jack” by The Who.
David is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to a mental hospital. He’s haunted by his past (memories that we get in flashes, fragments) as well as the present (“the devil with the yellow eyes”).
But, David is not alone. Both his friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), and girlfriend (of sorts), Syd (Rachel Keller) spend time with David in the hospital. Syd is the first one to suggest to David that maybe he isn’t crazy. A bond is formed between them. Both Stevens and Keller are excellent and they share a few sweet moments like “holding hands” using a scarf (due to her aversion to being touched) and laying next to each other separated by a pillow.
Much of the first episode ping-pongs between past and present. Between mutable memories and whatever happens to be David’s current version of reality. But, despite the show’s schizophrenic nature, it feels unified. Grounded. And, oddly enough, it’s David who grounds the story.
We are unable to pin down anything about this world. The timeframe is not specified and faintly recognizable as somewhere in the 70s or 80s possibly. That makes David all the more foundational to the story. Perhaps because we can only see reality through his lens. Perhaps because David is the only thing in the story we know is real. Either way, he anchors us to the story.
To further that, Hawley plants us firmly in David’s POV. The immersion into David’s world is jarring, yet so vivid that we can’t help but imagine what it is like inside his head. What it’s like to live that life. We are David. And like David, we are left to sort out what is real and what is imagined.
David is the ultimate unreliable narrator: one that doesn’t even trust his own sense of reality.
But he does trust Syd. And when she tells him, “This is real.” David believes her. And that's good enough for me.