The first season of FX’s Legion, which wrapped up on March 29, was rapturously received by television critics all over the internet.
After its finale, some took to their laptops to rant and rave about how showrunner Noah Hawley (Fargo the show) had utterly decimated “stale superhero TV” like The Flash and altered the TV landscape forever. While it’s sure to have a great afterlife on Hulu (where all of the episodes are currently streaming) and also on the freshman drug dealer’s DVD shelf, Legion’s kind of a mess. It’s paced excellently, looks interesting (if not beautiful), and has an excellent central performance, but it’s just kind of vacuous. Here’s a controversial statement: Legion cares about its characters about as much as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did its band of brooders, and its muddled jumble of influences and messaging adds up to something that’s just seriously underwhelming.
Each of our FauX-Men is completely and totally expendable. They’re nothing more than the means to an end: Either set-piece vehicles, engineered specifically for Hawley to get to that next interesting image, or setting; and they’re surprisingly empty much of the time. The only times the characters make an impression are during the explanation of their origins: Exposition dumps where the mutants (and some of their enemies) are allowed to breathe and feel. The Kerry/Cary sequence is the best of these, where Hawley provides us with a glimpse at the surreal beauty and emotional impact that these powers have on their bearers. Not surprisingly, it’s a moment where the aesthetics of the show sync tremendously well — the imagery feels appropriate, the period setting feels earned and right, the quiet caring between the two of them coming across as sweetly melancholy. Amber Midthunder and Bill Irwin nail the complex emotions of the scene, and it’s hard not to care about them more than the actual protagonist of the damn show from time to time.
Perhaps it’s fitting that they’re the only two characters out of the core cast whose powers aren’t constantly used to get David and company from place to place. Rachel Keller’s body-swapper Syd is used several times to help David get out of sticky situations, Jeremie Harris’s memory-maestro Ptonomy’s power is used by the rest of the cast to enter David’s mind, and the other psychic guy who shows up for thirty seconds every now and then to kick ass and take names is used to provide cover for their escapes. The female characters are exclusively defined by their relationships with the men they love, and they’re given very little characterization outside of that. Even when the show tries to explore those feelings and even tries to complicate them (for a moment, when Jemaine Clement’s Oliver can’t remember who his wife, Jean Smart’s Melanie Bird, is, it seemed the show would take a vastly different and more interesting direction than it wound up taking) it fails them, abandoning that work for another shiny moment for the “next time on Legion” clip package.
This lack of emotion contrasts heavily with Hawley’s stated influences, such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the works of Terrence Malick and David Lynch, which he seems to misunderstand as purely aesthetic enterprises. The first two are no-brainers — the mindfuckery of Gondry’s work is in service of its characters’ emotional journeys; Malick’s style is almost entirely rooted in feeling, of which the abstract visuals are meant to enhance and extrapolate the most difficult sentiments from its protagonists and its audience — and Hawley’s constantly shifting styles prevents a tone and atmosphere from taking root and enduring in the audience’s brains like Lynch’s have. And the aesthetic pieces he’s taken from Lynch; the cryptic visions of horrible things happening to the characters, to the aesthetic depiction of fantasy and reality (where Lynch uses color, Hawley uses an aspect ratio change), to the ethereal and weird nature of the show’s evil personae; feel like they’re awkwardly collided with The Prisoner in a way that misunderstands the successes of both properties.
That evil personae mentioned in the paragraph prior nearly sinks the damn show, as well.
Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny, David’s mental manifestation of the evil Man with the Yellow Eyes, is either the show’s highlight or THE WORST depending on who’s watching it. Regardless, she’s the largest presence, overshadowing each and every cast member, and it’s a huge risk for Hawley to rely on her to hold the whole thing down. She’s rarely threatening or truly horrific, and though her performance might have its charms and delights, it’s just not very satisfying to see her basically scat-singing her lines for much of the runtime (it’s a blessing that she’s being paired up with Oliver this coming season, as it’ll pair the show’s most annoying characters together and might ground them a bit more). Thank God that Stevens’ makes for a compelling protagonist, because if this show was centered around another actor it’d fall apart in a heartbeat, collapsing under the weight of Plaza and the convolutions of its plot. He’s really able to take everything Hawley throws at him and sell it like hell: One has to imagine that tailoring a performance to all the different usages of an oft-flashbacked scene like one in which David Blows Up The Kitchen must be difficult. He strikes the right notes, and his portrayal of a man with “mental illness” is empathetic in a show that uses the disabled for mainly for gags and window-dressing.
Sure, Hawley devotes an episode to imagining the whole group as patients in the mental hospital David stays in for six years, but we’re all very aware that it’s an illusion caused by Lenny (to be fair, this is a pretty great pun: Literalizing the phrase “the inmates are taking over the asylum” as she’s become the head therapist). Even though it does it’s best to suggest that (with similar skepticism and unhealthiness made manifest) its characters might find them institutionalized alongside the protagonist, there’s still a righteous “fuck yeah” to be yelled when the cast realizes that it’s all a trick, that they’re simply prisoners in an illusion, and they emerge ready, healthy and powerful, to fight against the source of their ills. That neatness, with its suggestions of resolution and eventual freedom from an illnesses without a cure, might be the most difficult-to-accept aspect of Legion’s first season. Of course, that structure is inherited from its comic book origins, but you’d think a show that seems scared to openly acknowledge its sourcing might be able to deviate from its formulas.
It’s fair to say that Legion is “visually stunning,” in that it has the occasional brilliant shot and some decent VFX work, and can use those moments in service of its aesthetic ends better than a lot of shows on network TV, and that it resembles little else on the cable landscape not airing at two in the morning on Adult Swim. That phrase, though, when used for the hollow endorsement of such pure bullshit like the live-action Ghost in the Shell and the aforementioned Dawn of Justice, has become the modern critic’s form of damning a movie with some pretty faint praise.
But while it may be “visually stunning,” there’s a lot of hope to be found for Legion’s second season in its last episode, with the swell management of its big climactic showdown and the little extra character bits we’re given strewn throughout the episode (Clement’s Oliver under the control of Lenny is something to look forward to, just to see how it alters the characters). The mid-credits scene, in which David is stolen away by a camera drone, seems to be a teaser for the video-based villain Mojo, who will offer Hawley a much more expansive source of influential work to draw from. Now that Legion’s fulfilled its origin story (which are notoriously hard to get right in the superhero genre), we’ll get to see whether it’s second season will be a Dark Knight or a Secret of the Ooze. The elements are there, let’s just hope they work better this next time around.