Confession : I nodded off several times while watching the pilot episode of Legion, the latest Marvel Comics-inspired show on TV.
Oops. That’ll teach me to check out a challenging, reality-bending, demands-no-less-than-your-total-attention show after a tiring day at work and only three hours of sleep the night before.
Oh, it also didn’t help that my PVR only recorded the first 50 minutes of the 70-minute pilot. Thanks, Astro. But thank heaven for repeats.
So after these, er, setbacks, I finally managed to take in the totally bonkers introduction to what has, up to three episodes in, been an equally bonkers series.
Watching Legion, you can be forgiven for thinking that it hails from a completely different part of the comics realm than the gaudy mainstream occupied by the merry mutants we all know and love as the X-Men.
Sure, there are moments when gifted youngsters fling bad guys through the air with casual flicks of the wrist – making Sith Lords look wimpy in comparison – and various superpowers are presented in, well, obvious ways.
But the manner in which the story unfolds is anything but obvious.
Legion challenges the viewer’s … er, view of reality – as perceived by its protagonist David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) – while also defying the standard storytelling techniques and plot structures associated with the genre.
For starters, David has spent the last five years in a mental institution thinking he has schizophrenia. But, gradually, he begins to realise that the things he is experiencing, the wild memories he has, as well as the terrifying visions, may be due to the fact that he has powers.
And when he meets a new patient named Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), he falls in love – only their inevitable first physical contact triggers a completely off-the-wall body-swapping experience that demands your total focus to be able to figure out exactly whose point of view you’re seeing at a given time. (Barrett’s name is an apt choice, as she shares it with former Pink Floyd founder member/lead singer Syd Barrett. Psychedelic prog rock? This is psychedelic prog TV!)
Intercut with this “primary” narrative are interrogation scenes in which David appears to be getting the third degree from some sinister suit-wearing types while a cranky old paranoid authority figure observes the proceedings.
And what’s with those visions of a jowly, yellow-eyed demon (“The Devil with Yellow Eyes”) who pops up in the most inconvenient places (David’s memories, mainly) while other (purported) mutants are scanning his mind to determine the truth (whatever that may be)?
Showrunner Noah Hawley (novelist, and the man responsible for TV’s Fargo) has stated that the intention is not for Legion to be an “information delivery” device but an “experience delivery” one.
And to give the man his due, he has certainly delivered on that.
With its non-linear, immersive, visually striking (if anachronistic in design), appealingly performed narrative, Legion has certainly been an experience.
It is like peeling an onion, layer by layer, revealing things that are by turns amusing, tragic, startling, funny and frightening – though it hasn’t yet made my eyes water. Except from laughing when David telekinetically sent a pen flying to skewer his smug interrogator’s face. C’mon, the guy deserved it.
At this point in the story, there are way more questions than answers; actually, nothing that remotely resembles an answer.
Chief among these questions, of course, is: are we just watching an elaborate figment of David’s imagination, wrought by his mental condition?
How does all this fit into the larger X-Men “Cinematic Universe” that has been created over the last 16 years? Or is it even meant to reside in that – for want of a better word – reality? How many shadowy government Divisions are there monitoring the “mutant menace”, anyway? Is David actually X-Men founder Professor Charles Xavier’s son, like he is in the comics? What kind of father would read a twisted story like The World’s Angriest Boy In The World to his little son?
And is the yellow-eyed demon this show’s interpretation of the Shadow King, a.k.a. Amahl Farouk, one of the Marvel Universe’s most powerful psychic entities?
Its appearances so far have been pretty hackle-raising, and – something Hawley also stated he was aiming for – hark back to Killer Bob’s early half-glimpsed appearances in Twin Peaks.
Clearly, Hawley and his collaborators have a definite idea where they’re taking all this, and us with it. Their efforts are greatly aided by Stevens’ knowing, almost winking-at-ya performance – sometimes, when he’s talking to his interrogators and even the well-meaning types seeking to help him find out more about his powers, it is almost as if he’s talking to the audience as well.
With half its eight-episode first season still to go, Legion looks set to be a consistently trippy and wild ride. It certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re up to sampling something fresh and invigorating in a genre that has become quite formulaic, then check into the Overlook Hotel of David Haller’s mind.
All work and no play makes Jack the world’s angriest boy in the world, after all.
Legion airs every Thursday at 9pm on Fox HD (Astro Ch 724).