Superhero fans couldn’t really ask for more than what they’re getting on TV right now. Almost all the broadcast networks and Netflix have something to offer. Cable and other streaming services are getting into the game as well.
These shows generally occupy two categories: Serious and relatively grounded, or fun and a bit campy. Netflix’s shows (“Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist”) and The CW’s “Arrow” fall into the serious category. The CW’s other “Arrowverse” shows (“The Flash,” “Legends of Tomorrow,” “Supergirl”) and NBC’s “Powerless” tend towards the fun and light-hearted. ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD” and Fox’s “Gotham” vacillate between the two camps.
Unfortunately, none of these shows (save possibly the first season of “Daredevil”) qualify as consistently great television. Don’t read what I’m not writing: most of these shows are good. Many of them have moments of greatness. But most of the goodwill these shows earn seems to come from an appreciation that they exist at all. As in, “Who would have thought that in my lifetime, I’d see The Flash fighting a telepathic gorilla on TV!”
Enter FX’s “Legion,” a fantastic show that needs no qualifiers. “Legion” follows David Haller (Dan Stevens), a head case with latent telekinetic and telepathic abilities. The character Legion is an “Omega-level” mutant, potentially one of the most powerful in Marvel’s universe. Yet the show starts much smaller: A confused and frustrated patient in an institution and those who seek to “help” him (including Rachel Keller, Bill Irwin, Jean Smart, and the excellent Aubrey Plaza).
Not a Typical Superhero Show
Don’t let the word “mutant” throw you off. This is not a typical superhero show. “Legion” doesn’t rely on laser eyes, super speed, or moms having the same name. Yes, some scenes show off “traditional” superhero abilities. Haller’s simmering powers undergird everything and those powers boil over. But this show focuses much more on treating (and supposedly saving) a broken man dealing with his demons, figurative and otherwise.
Most of Haller’s “treatment” involves trips into his always unsettling, often terrifying memories that Haller (or someone else) might not want anyone to see. It makes “Legion” more thrilling, psychological sci-fi than superhuman. It’s as if “Inception” and “Fringe” had a schizophrenic baby.
The show jumps between different times and realities at a fevered pace, especially in the disconcertingly trippy pilot. “Legion” has maintained its delightful, psychedelic mania without using that in place of substance. Reality remains fluid as the first season draws to a close. The show’s intentionally misleading and vague setting doesn’t help. But none of this comes off as a crutch to hold up a sagging story.
“Legion” also avoids the traps that snare many of these comic book shows. The show plays it mostly straight, usually employing humor as a way to relieve the ever-increasing tension. Yet the inherent darkness never turns the show into a drag, unlike “Arrow” or “Gotham.” It never comes across as too campy or drama-heavy, like the rest of the Arrowverse.
Also, the first season is only eight episodes, perfect for a show like this. No padding, no time wasted. It’s something Marvel’s Netflix shows could learn.
“Legion’s” depth also sets it apart. Yes, all the shows above have a serialization aspect. But none of them demand your attention the way “Legion” does. Some of the best, most unnerving moments happen in a flash. Each episode also provides enough breadcrumbs, nuggets, and other delicious metaphors that they beg to be reexamined (or digested, to stick with the theme).
So don’t let the comic book origins or superhero fatigue faze you. “Legion” rises above all of it and makes a persuasive claim as the best new show of the season.