Dan Stevens has the bluest eyes in the world, a pair of frozen lakes that gleam with a ghost’s need to be seen. That we notice Stevens’s eyes at all in FX’s Legion, which premiered this week, is something of an achievement. Loosely connected to but heavily influenced by the X-Men franchise, the Marvel drama is quite possibly the most psychedelic TV show ever made. It’s a shame that the sublimely hallucinatory 68-minute pilot won’t be seen in theaters. Written and directed by creator Noah Hawley, who also reimagined Fargo as a series for FX, the timeline-jumping debut episode zigzags from horror to surrealism, interrogation thriller to Bollywood-inspired dance sequence. Arguably even more intoxicated by the ’60s than Mad Men was, Legion looks like a swirl between 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sean Connery’s James Bond movies, and the most mod of Twiggy’s fashion editorials. If you’re too scared to try acid but you wanna get a sense of what it’s like, this is the show for you.
Legion, in other words, finally brings to the superhero genre the tang of dizzying unreality that should’ve been there from the start. Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Peter Parker have a history of being written as relatable, but it doesn’t make much sense that they would be. More probable are the circumstances that David Haller (Stevens) finds himself in: diagnosed as delusional, living on the margins until he’s institutionalized, tranquilized daily, and told his life is something to be managed, rather than realized to the fullest. In the comics, Legion is Professor X’s son, and the series borrows swaths of ideas from X-Men. Here, too, evolution is creating young mutants who need guidance, whose superpowers are causing anxious authorities to overreact, and who are brought together to a Hogwarts where they work through their misfit’s angst while prepping for war.
Before David meets Fargo veteran Jean Smart’s headmistress, he’s willingly stuck in a mental asylum, watching other patients drool on themselves with his sarcastic best friend, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza in her best post–Parks and Rec role, playing a character originally written as a middle-aged man). In addition to Lenny, David’s personal constellation consists of his loving but distant sister, Amy (Katie Aselton), and his beautiful cipher of a girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller). Since the pilot frenziedly hops to many different points in David’s life, it’s not until the second episode that the show’s emotional fulcrum becomes clear. All his life, the voices that David has been hearing in his head and the giant thumb monster that only he can see both meant he was crazy, and the stigma surrounding his illness made him think of himself as a loser. But superpowers or not, it’s difficult to rewrite the story of your life, especially when you’ve used that narrative to justify doing things you’re not proud of. Low self-esteem can be a helluva addiction — and it’s this fact that gives Legion its unique superhero stakes.
The manically myriad visits to different times in David’s life mean that, more than the vast majority of TV characters, we get a sense of his life in full, as well as the many different incidents (and the array of terrible haircuts) that have shaped him: his arrests, his suicide attempt, the post-breakup rage that transformed his kitchen into a tornado of shards. Waking up in different times and places, he doesn’t trust his mind — and we shouldn’t either — but it’s still funny when he wakes up tied to a chair in a swimming pool under threat of death, scoffs to his captor, “I’m insane, you idiot ... it’s not real,” and it quickly becomes clear that, no, he did indeed wake up in a scenario stranger than most dreams.
Five years after his last appearance on Downton Abbey, Stevens bears little resemblance to the noble, slightly chubby solicitor who melted Lady Mary’s icy heart. His newfound lankiness brings with it a scumbag edge that plays up the crystals in the actor’s baby blues. In a TV landscape crowded with antiheroes, David stands out for the rueful and terrified self-doubt Stevens brings to his protagonist.
The two installments after the pilot can’t keep up with the initial stream-of-consciousness pace and the K-hole of Lynchian mirages. But the art direction, especially as David begins to lean into his slowly explained powers, stays superb, never more so than when he angrily reduces a table to confetti. As long as the rest of the eight-episode season manages to avoid a plodding, Inception-like pace, Legion stands to be one of the most innovative new shows of the year.