“Is this real?” David Haller (Dan Stevens, “Downton Abbey”) asks at the end of the head-spinning premiere of “Legion.” A collaboration between FX and Marvel Studios, “Legion” is as untraditional a superhero show as they come. Some of this can probably be attributed to its creator, Noah Hawley (“Fargo”). But even by Hawley’s standards, “Legion” is a risky endeavor, as it dives into a world where reality and the mind continuously clash.
Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, David has spent the last six years of his life in the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, living on a daily regime of medication and routine with no end in sight.
“I tell them I’m sane, they think I’m crazy. And if I say, you’re right, I am crazy,’ then they up my dosage,” David says, explaining his catch-22 to his sister Amy (Katie Aselton, “The League”). He goes on warning, “Something new needs to happen soon.”
That “something new” comes in the form of Sydney Barrett (Rachel Fuller, “Fargo”), a new patient with a mysterious aversion to touch, who immediately captures David’s attention. “What if your problems aren’t in your head? What if they aren’t your problems?” Syd wonders out loud in a therapy session, and so the world of “Legion” begins to open its doors.
The truth (or so it seems) is that David is a mutant, one with incredible power and very little control over it. But this revelation only opens up more questions as the pilot moves forward. Figures who lurk in the shadows of David’s mind become even more mysterious and complex. What were once thought to be hallucinations or non-existent voices become something perhaps even more sinister and threatening. All the while, the true nature of David’s mind and memories remain elusive, with each unraveling plot thread twisting and obscuring another aspect of the larger tapestry.
The premiere, directed by Hawley, uses as many tricks as it can to help construct the headspace that is David’s mind. From point-of-view shots to wide-angle lenses warping the edges of the screen, Hawley and cinematographer (Dana Gonzales, “Criminal”) continually shift the viewing experience into something new as David’s mind is tossed and thrown around. A noticeably adjusting aspect ratio in one scene signals paranoia as threats, both real and perceived, close in around David. Meanwhile, the entire screen turns upside-down after one particularly world-shaking action. Accompanying this visual flare is a tense score by Jeff Russo (“The Night Of”) that walks the line between emotional and foreboding while a soundtrack that includes The Who, The Rolling Stones and Jane’s Addiction serves to punctuate David’s restless existence. All of this is aided by Steven’s energetic portrayal of David, which jumps from desperate confusion to twitchy anxiety as he constantly tries to wrap his head around his reality. It also helps that Stevens is surrounded by a particularly strong cast, including Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and Jean Smart (another “Fargo” alum).
Twisting and turning through its 90-minute premiere, “Legion” continuously throws new information and subversions at the audience, making the viewer constantly question what they’re seeingand whether it’s even happening at all. It rarely gives the audience any firm ground to anchor themselves to, as our perception and understanding of what is on screen is interrupted and reconsidered. The closest it seems to delivering something concrete comes in the form of David’s interview with The Interrogator (Hamish Linklater, “The Big Short”), which serves to deliver some necessary backstory. But even that reality is defined by shady motives and untold secrets as David struggles to unearth what his captors really want with him behind closed doors.
Hawley is most effective when he digs into the dimensions of his characters, thrusting them into situations that are far bigger and complicated than they can possibly imagine. Whether it’s brutal violence, unexpected disasters or unimaginable superhuman abilities, Hawley uses these events to truly test the metal of his characters. Some, like (“Fargo” ’s) Lester Nygaard, react despicably. Others, like Scott Burroughs of Hawley’s novel “Before the Fall,” maintain their decency against all odds. And some act perplexingly, responding to irrational circumstances in increasingly unpredictable ways. And it’s only near the end of the premiere, when the pieces start to come together and the structure of David’s mind and the show itself begins to take hold that we’re truly able to ascertain much of the events we’ve seen and the characters that have taken part in them. If anything, “Legion” ’s premiere serves to firmly establish that the audience and characters won’t know what will happen next.
However, the effectiveness of “Legion” ’s form and dispersal of information comes with how much the viewer trusts the series to fulfill its potential. Like all other shows that rely on continually subverting audience expectations and turning reality on its head (just look at “Mr. Robot” or “Westworld”), the development of “Legion” and whether it can payoff, will truly determine its staying power.