Mutants, superheroes, and mind control — these are all familiar terms to anyone keeping up with the Marvel cinematic universe. Yet while such topics remain germane to “Legion,” Noah Hawley’s second serialized creation for FX, they don’t apply the way you might think. A bald man in a wheelchair touting tolerance is nowhere to be found. Nor should you expect to see too many spandex suits or adamantium claws. And while these well-known figures are out of sight and out of mind, it’s only because “Legion” is focused on creating a private universe within a mind of its own; one far more intricate, intimate, and courageous than any that have come before.
Starring Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey,” “The Guest”) as David Haller, a tortured mental patient torn between believing he’s a paranoid schizophrenic plagued with false visions or a powerful telekinetic who hears voices that are all too real, the audacious new series expertly walks the line between reality and fiction. David hears things that may or may not be real. He sees things that may or may not be real. He does things that may or may not be, well, you get it. And yet “Legion” (through three episodes) keeps its focus on a man in need of help — from our known world or another advanced one — making his journey identifiable, empathetic, and exciting.
David’s story is one quickly identifiable to anyone who’s questioned themselves, and yet wholly unique to his one-of-a-kind point of view. The combination of character and presentation makes for constantly fascinating television. Hawley, who directed and wrote the dazzling premiere, has constructed a non-linear story filled with flashbacks, ethereal teleportation, disconnected voices, and otherwise inexplicable events meant to challenge assimilation and convey meaning simultaneously, all without losing the thread tying together an emotional journey for our leading lad.
Without robbing the show of its engrossing narrative unveiling, “Legion” isn’t just about David. Episode 1 picks up in a mental hospital to which David has been committed, and we’re introduced to his antagonistic partner in crime, Lenny (a delightfully unhinged Aubrey Plaza). The two share an understanding of one another that feels immediate, as though they’re on a common mission even when they’re not trying to do anything more than survive. It’s a bond not uncommon to what David shares with his sister, but they reacted divergently as they grew up: Amy (the always charming Katie Aselton) pities her brother and wants to help him get out of the hospital, but she doesn’t buy into his kooky ideas like Lenny does (in part, at least, because Lenny is a touch further gone than David).
But of all the influential women in David’s life, none have a greater impact than Syd Barrett. Played by Rachel Keller, in a compelling role reversal from her part as the family Judas in “Fargo” Season 2, Syd stands out to David from the start. It’s soon revealed Syd has a secret related to David’s: She may be harboring a hidden talent, as well, and she doesn’t see it as a blessing either. The two become a driving emotional force in a shockingly short amount of time, turning “Legion” from a “12 Monkeys” mind-fuck to a “Romeo & Juliet” romance at the drop of a hat.
That being said, the series isn’t so easily summarized. The hour-plus premiere shifts gears with the precision of Mario Andretti, incorporating elements of science fiction, romance, comedy, action, and even horror into an adventure that never strays from its subject. “Legion” is always David’s journey, as denoted by its fragmented presentation and ever-beating heart. There’s world-building, yes, but it’s done by literally constructing worlds: The sets could be admired independent of the show if they didn’t add so much to it, and the entire production raises its artistry to a level atypical of superhero stories (and at least on par with the best design on TV).
For as much as “Legion” does to distinguish itself from other comic book shows, rather than abandon its roots, the series selectively embraces them. One grand scene in the premiere provides everything Marvel movie fans could ask for: a wide open set piece filled with explosions, gunfire, heroes and villains, all while the camera roams down a hillside in a lengthy shot filling the frame from one side to the other with mayhem. It’s a quite a sight, and one viewers won’t likely forget — even within a debut filled with indelible imagery.
Toss in dynamite performances (Jean Smart, we owe you a rave) matched by sizzling editing most Marvel movies would envy, and boom — “Legion” is top-tier TV, right off the bat. The internet will soon be crawling with articles listing inspirations for fan favorite scenes or the look, feel, and tone of the series, but what Noah Hawley has crafted here is a story unto itself. Like he did when adapting the “Fargo” film to his Emmy-winning anthology series, the writer has taken key elements of his source material and applied them to a canvas of his own design. What’s here may feel familiar in singular moments, but it’s a breathtakingly original work when looked upon as a whole.
Marvel’s moviemakers should be jealous: Just when they thought they were making something TV couldn’t top, “Legion” comes along and sets the bar even higher.
“Legion” premieres Wednesday, February 8 at 10 p.m. on FX.