Saturday, February 11, 2017


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“What are you supposed to be?”

I guess Legion is a superhero show, but it doesn’t really feel like one.  It is based on a relatively obscure X-Men character, and apparently it is tied enough to that film series that Fox allows it to use the term “mutant” to describe his powers (while Marvel studios has to stick with “Inhuman” for their terrestrial freaks).  But even after a group of superpowered guerillas hatch an explosively fantastical prison break, the pilot still felt like it had less in common with Ant-Man or Days Of Future Past than loony bin dramas like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or The Ninth Configuration,or sci-fi conspiracy thrillers like Firestarter or Midnight Special.

Which is fine by me.  Don’t get me wrong, I like superheroes, and the X-Men in particular.  But that film series has had its share of missteps, and while Bryan Singer’s DOFP adaptation did some yeoman work undoing the worst of them, it came with the encumbrance of remaining shackled to his muted style for the foreseeable future.  Legion has the potential to be for X-Men what the Netflix shows are for Marvel.  A more mature* take that uses our familiarity with the basics of the existing world to tell a different story with only the occasional throwaway line to directly connect it to the mothership.  I really shouldn’t have been worried about hewing too close to the movies, though, as for one the X-Men film continuity is incredibly porous compared to Marvel’s tightly-knit movie architecture, and for another Noah Hawley wasn’t going to sign on just to make a narrative afterthought like Agents Of SHIELD

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"Hi, I'm just your typical model turned hacker activist turned secret agent kung fu master
turned long-lost princess of a hidden, magical realm turned super-powered vigilante.
You know, the type who the writers totally always knew what they were doing with."

As difficult as it may be to do something new and unique with a superhero series tied to an existing universe, it should be easy compared to adapting the Coens’ seemingly-inimitable Fargo into a TV series that more than lives up to the original.  Hawley has quickly become one of the creative figures I trust most implicitly, and if I have any concerns about Legion after the pilot, it’s only that producing it and the third season of Fargo at the same time will be too much for one mortal.  And while I'm sure neither will be bad-bad, they might not end up as amazing as they would have been if they were spaced a year apart.  But that’s both speculative and pessimistic, so let’s move on.

I’m not going to spend much time on plot synopsis, because the pilot is very much focused on putting us inside David Haller’s head, where the central issue is that he is never really sure what is going on.  He’s a powerful telepathic/telekinetic mutant, he may or may not be mentally ill on top of that, a vaguely sinister paramilitary organization wants to dissect him, and some fellow superfolk led by his girlfriend bust him out of their clutches. Pretty much every other detail is fungible, and maybe even some of that stuff is too.  This should piss me off, as through this blog I’ve come to realize I kind of hate stories based around unreliable narrators and elaborate hallucinations and characters that turn out to be another character’s imaginary friend.  This is what led to my impatience with Westworld taking its sweet ass time turning its cards up, and getting fed up with Mr. Robot’s pervasive fuckery last year. 

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If at the end of your story, it turns out 90% of it didn't "really" happen,
you aren't blowing my mind, you're wasting my goddamn time

David is an extremely unreliable narrator, but the show and character are hyper-aware of that from the jump.  This effectively inverts the flow of narrative bullshit, so that rather than spending all season building up to the reveal that his crazy adventures were hallucinations while he was locked up in the mental institution, the twist seems to be that the craziest stuff that he would assume was his mental illness actuallly is happening. 

Or as a more concrete example, Hawley doesn’t try to mislead us about Lenny having survived the incident at the hospital and lead up to some dramatic internal confrontation where her ghost forces David to tearfully admit that she has been a figment of his grief-stricken imagination all along. Instead she’s very up front that yep, I’m totally dead dude, but don’t think that means you’ve heard the last of me.  It’s still the “imaginary friend” trope at which my eyes would usually roll, but it focuses on what it means to the character instead of trying to play it like a trick on the audience.  I was similarly relieved when Lenny and the doctor immediately started interacting with Syd when she entered the hospital, quickly dispensing with any “is she just a figment of his imagination???” bullshit. 

On a separate but parallel track, David is a giant ball of outlandish traits that should render him impossible to identify with.  He has superpowers, elaborate hallucinations and spent most of his adult life under lock and key in a mental asylum in a heavily sci-fi tinted but ambiguously retro time period.  But Hawley and Dan Stevens make him immediately likable and relatable, intelligent without being smug, high strung without being annoying and possessing an appreciable sense of humor without being a total goofball.  Somehow he grounds the craziness that emanates out from him and defines the show.  And the fact that he is just as confused as we are about what’s going on stands in stark contrast to other recent, highly frustrating shows like Taboo and The Young Pope that create lush, intriguing settings for fantastic actors to stomp through, but insist on creating “intrigue” by refusing to let us know why the fuck they’re doing anything. 

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The show that dares to ask "What if the pope was just a total dick to everyone?  That could be a show, right?"

What makes Hawley a genius, like most things that define genius, sounds really simple once you put your finger on it.  He knows how to use narrative trickery, obfuscation and intrigue to tell a story, rather than to avoid telling it.  Or as he told Alan Sepinwall:

There has been a recent TV trend of unreliable narrators. How do you keep the audience from looking at the show as a puzzle to solve?
You have to solve the mystery. The narrator has to become reliable. It’s a lot to ask an audience to take a perpetually unsatisfying journey where it’s like you’re never going to know for sure. It’s another thing to say, “We’re going to take a character out of confusion into clarity and an audience out of mystery into clarity.” That’s the goal of it which is to say, there’s a contract and you watch that first hour and you like, “I don’t know. There’s a devil with yellow eyes and there are these other elements that I’m not sure what they mean, but I trust the filmmaker and I know that I’m going to understand it eventually.” You do. It becomes clear by the end of the first year what’s going on.

Legion is as twisty and confusing a story as I’ve encountered in years, but it’s also one of the most promising because of the pains Hawley takes to make us feel like he is navigating through that confusion with us instead of using it against us. 

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Other random thoughts:

  • That opening montage is really fantastic.  My favorite moment is the way “Happy Jack” becomes muted when it gets to the doctor prescribing his pills.
  • The dirtstache on teenage David is on point.  I wonder how much, if any, of that opening sequence we’ll revisit.  There are some incidents regarding a mob surrounding him screaming and looting a liquor store that appear to have led to an arrest that seem like they might be important formative moments for him (more so than getting that pee-wee soccer trophy, anyway).
  • The fact that Lenny feels like a character written specifically for Aubrey Plaza, even though in the script it was a middle-aged man, is about the most perfect encapsulation of her unique flavor I could imagine.  She has the soul of a middle-aged road comic in the body of the hot track star the internet becomes briefly obsessed with during the Olympics (seriously, they did as good a job as possible frumping her up, but especially when she shows up in overalls there’s no hiding that girl is pretty jacked).
  • Syd introduces her female friend as “Carrie”, and given that she is not carrying a gun like the other guy, it seems safe to assume that she was the one that flash-fried the goons at the swimming pool and that the name is a deliberate nod to Stephen King’s eponymous, pyrokinetic heroine.

*Which is not to say better, just that for whatever else their faults, Daredevil/Luke Cage/Jessica Jones feel like they are for adults and about adults who have some actual adult problems to go alongside their undead ninja issues.  Whereas DC’s self-consciously gritty movies feel made for 14 year-olds tryhards.

1 comment:

  1. "If at the end of your story, it turns out 90% of it didn't "really" happen,
    you aren't blowing my mind, you're wasting my goddamn time."

    Just so bloody good.