Legion – TV Review
by Roger Crow
There was a time when a new superhero series was as welcome as Christmas. In the 1970s, TV versions of The Hulk, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man were flawed but fun in those days when fans were starved of big screen comic book crime busters.
These days the market is saturated with gifted heroes fighting gloriously demented antagonists. The problem is so few of them work, especially on the small screen. I recently grew bored of Arrow, Supergirl, Gotham, The Flash and Agents of Shield, so I doubt Sky/Fox’s new saga Legion will offer any fresh blood for the often anaemic genre.
But as artist Bill Sienkiewicz has praised the TV version of his comic, I give it a look. Dosed up on anti-cold medication, Legion seems perfectly suited for those in need of distraction from life, or sneezing.
Two things stand out: Dan Stevens, he of Downton Abbey fame, and the trippy Stranger Things-style tone. That show, in case you didn’t know it, was one of the biggest success stories of last year, partly down to its 1980’s retro vibe; all Steven Spielberg-ian lighting/setting and John Carpenter-esque score. That and the fact it was gloriously bizarre and familiar at the same time.
“Strikes just the right tone”
There are similarly gobsmacking moments in Legion, the tale of David Haller, a haunted man plagued by numerous split personalities. Following a stunning opening montage reminiscent of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, we follow Haller from baby through troubled childhood to disturbed young man. He meets Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), the girl of his dreams in a psychiatric institution, but they can’t touch.
If all this sounds like the early X-Men movies, that’s because it’s from some of the same team. However, for half the pilot episode, I’m not sure whether it’s an X-Men spin-off or a standalone show.
TV bosses know many folks turn off the minute they find they’re watching a comic book-inspired series, so there’s barely a mention of special powers until more than 30 minutes in.
I was never a fan of ‘Downton’, but was knocked out by Stevens in The Guest, a cracking B-movie from a couple of years ago. I had no idea he was in the series as I’d not seen any advance publicity and the credits arrive at the end. He strikes just the right tone as a charismatic but troubled hero.
Show-runner Noah Hawley had already done a terrific job of turning the TV version of Fargo into must-see telly, and he also pulls off a masterstroke here, keeping the attention throughout as David comes to terms with the fact he may not be crazy after all.
“An alluring, compelling heroine”
Trippy dream sequences and a recurring yellow-eyed creature may be the talking point around water coolers for weeks to come, while Stevens cements his status as one of Blighty’s brightest showbiz exports in years. (Fingers crossed he lands the role of 007 in the next Bond movie).
It helps that many of the cast are unknowns, at least to me, though there are a couple of familiar faces. Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza and the ever reliable Jean Smart (24) add kookiness and gravitas respectively, while Fargo’s Rachel Keller is an alluring, compelling heroine.
Sienkiewicz raised an interesting point about whether the quality level will drop off after episode one. Pilot episodes are usually fine-tuned to within an inch of their lives to ensure they grab and sustain the attention. But the real trick is making the mid-season episodes as gripping as the first.
It remains to be seen whether Hawley and company can keep me hooked. But for now, this sneezing viewer is glad of the distraction. Suddenly comic book shows are interesting again.
‘Legion’ is on Fox, Thursdays at 9pm and on Catch-Up