As Marvel took over the movies, their concurrent attempts to expand their universe into television largely floundered. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the much vaunted series co-created by Avengers helmer Joss Whedon, went from an official, canonical extension of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to an odd afterthought. It pulled off the unlikely combination of being a long-running series that felt inconsequential. And a series of Netflix series, adhering to model of individual character adventures leading to a team-up, got off to a relatively promising start before similarly sliding into cultural oblivion. It’s not that the programs didn’t properly ape their big-screen cousins. Instead, it seemed the approach grew bland when stretched out over multiple episodes. Marvel movies are often satisfying in their clockwork adherence to a unifying style. The television equivalent became a snooze. What they needed was some daring.
Before Twentieth Century Fox was absorbed into Disney, they were willing to get a little weird with the handful of Marvel properties they controlled, and the first true indication of the risky range they were willing to travel was in the FX series Legion. Based every so loosely on a character introduced during Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s run on The New Mutants, itself an achievement in stretching familiar forms to their snapping point, the series follows David Haller (Dan Stevens), who in introduced while institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital, where is smitten with fellow patient Sydney (Rachel Keller). The two don’t bond only over their need for mental health care. They each have superpowers.
There’s no conventional heroics to come, though. Series creator and showrunner Noah Hawley has something very different in mind. David has incredibly powerful psychic abilities, and Hawley’s series initially hinges on the question of what the outcomes might be if someone whose mind can rework the world is dealing with mental illness. Although the show is sometimes remarkably dark in its sensibility, Legion isn’t a heavy psychodrama with special effects. Hawley and his collaborators use the premise — and the powers — to give themselves license to set their imaginations roaring. Already a restless experimenter with narrative structure on his splendid FX series Fargo, Hawley goes wild on Legion. Musical numbers abound, visuals shift and gleam, and oddities skitter in and out of the story. A character (played by Jemaine Clement) is not only trapped on the astral plane, but he resides in a giant ice cube, sips liquor, and purrs in antiquated hipster lingo. It’s as if every nutty idea was countered with only one comment: “How about a little more?”
The main plot that arc through season one of Legion isn’t quite immaterial, but its sprawling conspiracy and gradual unveiling of the truth is less exciting than the spirited play of the storytelling. But that freewheeling quality only works because it’s a proper reflection of the imbalance of the lead character. Hawley heightens the stakes by unsettling everything. Just as David can’t quite get a grip on his inner self, the show gleefully gives in to unpredictability. It’s nothing but hairpin turns, maneuvered expertly.
To make this kind of madcap tale work, the actors need to be game for anything. Turn a script page, and there might be a fight scene, a moment of wrenching emotion, or a Bollywood dance number. Each element demands wholesale commitment to make it work. Every cast member meets the challenge, none with more zest than Aubrey Plaza. She plays Lenny, a compatriot of David’s who becomes a warped antagonist. The role was original written for a middle-aged man, and Plaza insisted that not a word be changed. She embraces chaos. Plaza is a strategic dervish with a wicked grin and an arched eyebrow. Her performance is the definition of magnetic.
When Legion reached the end of its first season, Hawley acknowledged that trying to continue a story beyond its first set of episodes was a new challenge for him (Fargo is an anthology series that resets every year). Sure enough, the ingenuity of Legion was eventually overwhelmed by its interweaving intellectual mayhem. For eight expansive episodes, though, all of the spinning wheels synch up the right way. Legion is a argument for dipping into the wide sea of Marvel’s decades of inventiveness and swirling the waters into a dizzying cyclone.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two
—Togetherness, Season One
—Braindead, Season One
—Community, Season Two
—Agent Carter, Season Two
—The Leftovers, Season Three
—Treme, Season One
—How I Met Your Mother, Season Two
—Firefly, Season One
—Raising Hope, Season Three
—Jessica Jones, Season One
—WKRP in Cincinnati, Season One
—Veep, Season Five
—Freaks and Geeks, Season One