The issue of mental illness has been at the forefront of television for a while now. Acclaimed shows like FX’s “You’re The Worst,” the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” have been praised for their sensitive, nuanced portrayals of mental health. And while its exposure into mainstream TV has helped emphasize its social relevance, mental illness is still a very tricky, often perplexing topic to depict.
Using mental illness in TV delicately and acutely requires several necessary steps: doing extensive research, getting advice from mental health consultants, hiring writers with familiarity or lived-in experiences of mental illness and getting actors who approach the material in a thoughtful way. But it’s possible for a show that successfully discusses mental illness to also simply use creative storytelling to immerse the audience into understanding mental illness on a personal, cultural and institutional level.
FX’s “Legion” is one such show that puts that tactic to the test.
Created by Noah Hawley (“Fargo”) and based on a character of the same name from the “X-Men” comics, “Legion” is one of the most unusual and refreshing TV programs in recent memory. It works as both a superhero drama and psychological thriller, incorporating arresting visuals, innovative cinematography and a haunting electronic music score. Though “Legion” remains steadfast in joining the canon of peak TV — it was just renewed for a second season — the authenticity of its perspective on mental illness has become somewhat debatable.
“Legion” follows David Haller (Dan Stevens, “Beauty and the Beast”), a powerful mutant who is diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age but later discovers that his “illness” is actually just telekinetic powers. After he’s recruited by a team of mutants, David learns to harness his abilities, leading him on a journey of self-discovery of differentiating between reality and fantasy.
Given its jarring visual style and unconventional, non-linear narrative, “Legion” walks a thin line between making mental illness into a spectacle-heavy storytelling device and deconstructing it in order to subvert its stigmas.
Some reviewers believe the portrayal of mental illness in “Legion” lacks nuance: Wired’s Eric Thurm claims the “groundlessness” with its treatment of mental health “threatens to upend the show,” while The Village Voice’s Angelica Bastién believes “limiting David’s character flattens the story’s emotional resonance.”
I would argue that “Legion” offers an intelligent, complex and daring illustration of mental illness. In fact, it wants the audience to understand David through the unreliability of his thought process and the frustrating lack of control he has over his illness / powers. Almost every sequence in each of the show’s first four episodes deliberately tries to cultivate a distortion of reality similar to David’s. From the disarmingly colorful production design to the variety of camera lenses and angles, “Legion” gives audiences an experience so disorienting that it not only forces us to look at mental illness from a different perspective, but also to question our own reality and what it means to be “normal.”
Perhaps “Legion” can also be seen as a broader critique of our society’s treatment (or lack thereof) of mental illness. In the first episode, we see David shackled to the confines of Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, a mental institution he lives in after an attempted suicide. Later, a group of seedy government officials interrogate David, believing that he is the most powerful mutant they’ve ever witnessed. After a few failed experiments, David escapes from the hospital and receives help from psychiatric therapist Melanie Bird (Jean Smart, “The Accountant”) and a special team of other mutants, including David’s own girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller, “Supernatural”). But even then, David is still bereft of control, as he is constantly pressured to open up his thoughts and memories under Dr. Bird’s demanding treatments. At one point, Dr. Bird, who denies David’s schizophrenia, even admits to her own ominous intentions: “I want to fix him because he deserves to be healthy. And then I want to use him.”
By having us empathize with David and his condition, “Legion” plays with this idea of how our culture attempts to understand a person suffering from a mental malady by medicating and controlling them. The show intentionally pushes us away from truly knowing what is going on inside David’s mind because it puts David into a box and simplifies the complex character he really is. Near the end of episode three, David addresses this concern directly: “Everybody in here keeps saying that I’m sane. What if they’re wrong?”
Nevertheless, mental illness remains a difficult topic when it comes to “Legion.” It’s true that people who are schizophrenic and mentally ill in general can live full, productive lives. Watching David struggle with his demons and ultimately become a charity case might be seen as trivializing mental health and perpetuating negative myths about people with mental illnesses. Using visual trickery and cool set pieces to show David’s mental breakdowns might also sound ill-advised in theory — artistic depictions of mental health should focus on substance more than style. Still, “Legion” does its best to demonstrate just how intricate mental illness can be, while managing to be entertaining and thought-provoking. As the show continues to grow and David’s character develops, “Legion” may potentially become an example of a show that portrays mental health in a sensitive manner.