Legion, Or, The Problem With Premieres

by thethreepennyguignol

I noticed that in the last few months this blog hasn’t had nearly enough non-recappy TV stuff on it. And since TV, like prawn cocktail crisps, is my first and true love, let’s talk about it some more! Mostly, let’s talk about Legion, and the problem of premieres as dazzling as this one.

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So, as far as TV superhero stuff goes, I am ambivalent to actively bigoted against it. Even my once-adored Legends of Tomorrow has gone off the boil in a majorly rushed and Wentworth Miller-lite season two. So, naturally, I was wary about this, a show set in the X-Men universe that followed David Haller (Dan Stevens), a man hospitalised with schizophrenia who discovers that his illness may have more to do with the supernatural than his brain chemistry. I’m not going for a minute to pretend that I know anything about his comic book origins, so let’s dive straight into the review!

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I was doubly nervous about this show, as well, because when it comes to mental health stuff in a fantasy or sci-fi setting… well, things can get tricky. I’ve always felt somewhat icky about shows quickly writing off mental illness as, essentially, magic powers- in one particularly catastrophic episode of Doctor Who a couple of seasons back, a prime example came as a mentally ill child was told to come off her medication because the voices in her head were actually the Doctor trying to communicate with her. And I’m not saying that every goofy sci-fi show has to get that 100% right, but more often than not, they just get them…wrong. Really wrong. 

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But I have to admit, despite all my reservations, I kind of loved the opening episode of Legion. Dan Stevens, who I have only seen before in the kind-of-overrated The Guest (which only proved that he looked nice getting out of the shower) was surprisingly excellent in the leading role-edgy, angsty, and extremely watchable, this is the kind of performance you can build a show around. Noah Hawley, of Fargo fame, wrote and directed this episode (and showruns the series), and it was just packed full of dazzling imagery, breathtakingly original action sequences, and the kind of moments that were limited before to movies with more budget than they know what to do with. I assume the rest of the show will just be finger puppets lit by torches as they try to recoup the budget blown on this thrillingly gorgeous episode, but it was worth it. Really. And I say that as someone with a serious dislike of overtly stylised direction and other wankery of it’s ilk.

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Aubrey Plaza and Rachel Keller, making up the supporting cast, were entertaining enough (though they were both eye-rollingly gorgeous and well put-together for two women so ill they apparently required lengthy pscyhiatric hospitalization, but what’s new), and the writing was sparky and tight. i also thought that the mental health stuff was dealt with with some level of nuance, with the implication that these people may have super powers- but that doesn’t negate the fact they could also be ill. But really, this episode was about throwing us off-guard. The story was cut up into non-chronological chunks with various realities and timelines coming into play, and it left us with next to no clue of what was actually happening, even after the full hour it took for it’s premiere. Now, that’s no bad thing- I found the episode seriously enjoyable, and would recommend it if you’re looking for a stylistic new show to add to your weekly watching- but it poses a problem for the rest of the season.

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When you open with an episode as deliberately mind-bending as this, you run the risk of the show growing swiftly stale as the pieces fit into place. Yes, Dan Stevens is good, and the direction is extremely solid for network television, but are they enough to keep the show afloat if the story doesn’t turn out to be as interesting as the show clearly believes it is? Even in the next-week-on, I already found myself less engaged than I was during the premiere as the show had to stop and actually make sense of what it was doing. Throwing awesome action scenes and shocking little moments isn’t hard; hashing an interesting story out of them is. It’s a sleight-of-hand- the big distractions are often more entertaining than the technical stuff that’s currently going on out of sight. So many stories are interesting when you don’t have all the pieces yet, and there’s still the tantalising promise of it fulfilling it’s potential. I’m not saying Legion won’t do that, but I’ve been burned before.

I won’t be reviewing Legion week to week, but I will come back and take a look at the series finale. Because I have to admit, I’m intrigued by this show so far- it’s solid performances, the gorgeous visuals, the fact that it reminds me of BioShock Infinite and that’s got to be a good thing. But I’m more interested to see what goes beyond those superficial layers, and whether or not that can live up to the big, colourful, mind-boggling premiere episode.

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