Superhero TV shows are all the rage, and I’m certainly a sucker for them. Netflix’s Jessica Jones is one of the finest examples of the genre I’ve ever seen. The Flash has been required weekly viewing for three years now. And season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil caused my draw to literally drop (when the Punisher walked into the courtroom… Oh. My. God… we get to see the trial of the motherfrackin’ Punisher!)
So it was predictable and understandable that the frequency of genre shows would accelerate, despite Spielberg himself saying that superheroes would soon go the way of the Western.
I was with some trepidation that I watched the newest offerings: the pilot episode of FX’s Legion, and the first two episodes of NBC’s sitcom, Powerless.
Let’s begin with the latter. The premise behind Powerless is that in a world of superheroes (in this case, DC superheroes) the story of the common citizen –the powerless– is often overlooked. So this so-called comedy looks at the “hilarity” of one of Bruce Wayne’s companies trying to create products to protect citizens from the fallout caused by superheroes doing battle with supervillains.
I won’t waste your time with a lengthy review. Suffice it to say that this show is everything a 2017 TV show should not be. The characters are stereotypes. The one-liners are predictable and unfunny. From the first minute of the pilot, I wanted to turn it off. It’s that bad. Despite featuring three of my favourite comedic actors –Danny Pudi, Alan Tudyk and Ron Funches– I will not be watching this again.
In contrast, the lengthy pilot of Legion is a masterpiece of visual storytelling, a sublime mix of crisp characterization, touching dialogue, a rich Autumnal palette of colours, and the best soundtrack I’ve heard from a TV show in ages.
I should mention that I knew nothing about Legion before watching its pilot, absolutely nothing, not its premise, characters nor setting. I would encourage you to watch it with the same ignorance. So if you want to be in a state of vacuity for this show, stop reading this review now.
You were warned. It was not until thirty minutes into the show that it dawned on me….. Holy shit! This is about David Haller, the son of Professor Xavier from X-Men comics! David is a powerful mutant antihero who spends much of his life in psychiatric care, and whose code name is….. Legion! Ahhhhhh.
And, of course, the show’s logo, which is revealed at the end of the episode, betray’s the X-Men symbol:
I’m not much of a fan of stories about the children of comic book characters. The kids are always less interesting than their parents, and are universally overpowered, and are thus without the vulnerability needed for strong storytelling. The major exception, to my mind, is Graydon Creed, who is the non-super powered son of Marvel mutant Sabretooth. Creed is interesting because he hates mutants, and therefore hates himself. Instant drama!
But I digress.
Whereas Powerless‘s opening was a cookie-cutter affair that bored me to tears, Legion explodes onto the screen with a dialogue-free montage of protagonist David’s voyage from cute baby to troubled teen to institutionalized and suicidal young adult, all set to the tune of The Who‘s “Happy Jack.”
The remainder of the episode is set in the mental institution in which David has been living most of his life. Or is it? The question of what is real and what is David’s delusion dominates the episode, which is made ever more complicated because David might just be the world’s most powerful mutant, capable of bending reality with a single thought.
Within the first three minutes, Legion had captured my attention and held it for the next 100 minutes of its lengthy runtime. The style, clothing, colours, iconography are difficult to place. The fashion choices suggest that it’s set in the 1960s or 1970s. But the cars and characters are unabashedly modern.
Most confusing, and pleasurable, is the show’s reliance on 1960s Britpop standards, like The Stones’ “She’s A Rainbow” and Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine.” In fact, one of the key characters is named (at least in David’s head) Syd Barrett, Floy’d legendary schizophrenic songsmith.
FX no doubt broke the bank in paying for such expensive music licences. But the effect is a timelessness that dislodges the show from any sense of now, and better allows us entry into David’s seemingly unstable mind, which keeps drawing us back to the 1960s and 1970s, for reasons that I hope will eventually reveal –even in unspeaking cameo– one Charles Xavier.
I find myself quite excited by this series. It is smart, stylish, mature, and seems to respect its source material without falling straight down the hole into superhero cliches. I’ve always felt that the X-Men stories are best attuned to the television ethic. The X-Universe is too wide and deep for a series of movies; TV affords it the time and complexity to tell the fantastic stories that we fans know can arise from the panoply of broken X-characters.
David’s powers from the comics have always displeased me. He is seemingly, and unspecifically all-powerful, and that’s never a good trait for a straightforward narrative. But so far the writers have treated his circumstance with surprising sensitivity and adeptness. We are truly living in the golden age of television if “they” (the omnipresent, all knowing “they”) can produce an entire TV series built around David Haller, the least likely protagonist to arise from Marvel comics
I’ll be watching Legion, of course. Powerless…. not so much. The irony, of course, is that Legion is about a man with ungodly super powers, who is nevertheless powerless over his own life, mind, and predicament.