23 July 2024

Television Review – Legion Season 1 (2017)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the dominant pop culture juggernaut for almost a decade, with its tentacles stretching across film and television. However, while the various TV shows and films of the MCU might be successful and many of them are quite good, they are all conventionally told stories of heroes battling villains and saving the day, with most sticking to the tried and tested superhero movie formula.

For those perhaps tired of the MCU and its domination of the comic book/superhero arena, look no further than the new TV series Legion, a visually stunning, utterly bewildering and highly original take on one of Marvel comics most powerful characters. This story is not part not part of the MCU and that is its greatest advantage, allowing it the freedom to create quite possibly the most original take on the superhero genre that I’ve seen in quite some time.

David Heller has spent much of his life on medication and under psychiatric treatment to help cope with his severe mental illnesses. However, after meeting and falling in love with Syd, a fellow psychiatric patient, a series of strange events begin to transpire that suggest that what David thinks are symptoms of his mental illnesses, are in fact dormant powers that instead point to him being an incredibly powerful mutant and possibly one who could save or destroy the world.

While this series does not take place in the MCU, it does take place in the universe of the long-running X-Men films. Although, from watching the series you really can’t tell, bar a few very brief references, that there’s even a shared connection. Instead, Legion does everything it can to put distance between itself and its big-screen universe and it’s this distance that allows the series to develop its own distinctive and utterly mental identity.
Dan Stevens is our lead David Heller in what is simply perfect casting, with Steven’s giving possibly the best performance of his career thus far. Stevens manages to imbue the character with all the neurotic ticks and mannerisms of a mentally disturbed individual but also manages to make him likeable, funny, sweet and even heroic in some stages. But it’s when the character begins to show off the immense power that he has boiling away under the surface, that Stevens feels terrifying and powerful, like an angry god ready to smite those who dare wrong him.
Stevens is simply brilliant and I’d happily recommend the series based on his performance alone; thankfully he is backed up by a strong supporting cast, including Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Bill Irwin and Katie Asleton to name but a few, all giving fine performances as David’s allies and family in his mission.

However, the show is almost completely stolen by Aubrey Plaza’s incredible performance as Lenny, David’s friend from before and during his stay in the mental hospital. Plaza is a joy to watch with her character offering much in the way of genuinely funny comic relief in earlier episodes, but it’s in the later stages of the series when her characters true motives become clear that Plaza really begins to shine, being a manic mixture of dark comedy, sinister malice and genuine terror. I really wish I could go deeper into the brilliance of Plaza’s performance but that would be dealing in utterly ruinous spoilers, so just watch the series if you haven’t started already, she’s simply a joy to watch.

To say that this series is visually distinct from most TV shows is putting it mildly. with the show playing around with the normal conventions of the medium, constantly cutting between characters in different places, cutting to flashbacks and hallucinations, fluctuating the aspect ratios to convey dreams and memories, people walk into an elevator and then the camera turns to show the doors opening on a close up of David and Syd making love, or we get random dance sequences with the main cast, while other moments gives us brief nightmarish glimpses of the grotesque Shadow King. It’s an approach that is likely to put some people off from watching the show because it’s utterly mental, but it is an effective way of highlighting the schizophrenic, mentally disjointed view that David views the world. Essentially we see things how he sees them.

The visuals themselves are stunning to look at, with the excellent cinematography expertly working alongside a distinctive production design that mixes modern architecture and style, with 1960/70s style decor, making the world of the series seem like it takes place in multiple time periods as opposed to one. The genius manner in which the series really messes around with things also makes from incredibly inventive set pieces, such as when our heroes put on “magic glasses” which render the world black and white and silent, complete with silent film style inter-titles whenever someone speaks.

Some of the visual sights are also downright terrifying, such as the grotesque shape of the demonic looking Shadow King, who’s every sudden appearance, is a trouser ruining moment of sheer terror.

My favourite creation of the show, if you can call it that, though is The World’s Angriest Boy in the World (not a typo, that’s really its name) a character from a children’s book that David read as a boy (the scariest children’s book ever I might add), with the creepy creature’s genuinely scary papier-mâché head, frozen in an angry scream, now making regular guest appearances in my nightmares.

The story is initially not the easiest one to follow, and this again might put people off from watching the series, but I feel that the deliberately manic and disjointed manner in which the story is told in the first few episodes is, as mentioned before, a clever move to put the audience in the shoes of David, as he attempts to work out what is going on within his fractured mental state and the powers that he is gradually discovering.

The story, when you can follow it, is a fairly straightforward one of our heroes realising that the world faces a great threat from the sinister mutant dubbed The Shadow King, that has stalked David ever since he was a child, and longs to harness his powers for itself, while also dodging the sinister government forces that would rather have them captured or killed. Essentially it’s a very run of the mill story, told in an incredibly inventive and distinctive fashion that I personally love, but understand why people might be put off.

I wish I could write more about Legion, but to do so would completely ruin the show for anyone reading. Needless to say, though I loved every single mental minute of it.

With some truly outstanding performances from Steven’s and Plaza, a mind-bending often genuinely scary approach to its visuals and production design, and a story that while perplexing at first, is packed with intrigue, twists and excitement.

Legion is simply one of the best superhero/comic book creations currently on either the big or small screen. Go watch it and just immerse yourself in what is truly brilliant and highly creative piece of television.

Graeme Robertson | [rating=5]

Television, Action, Sci-fi | USA,2017 | 15 | Fox UK | 20th Century Fox Television | Creator: Noah Hawley | Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Jermaine Clement, Jean Smart | Buy: Coming Soon

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