If you hear that Legion is a comic book adaptation set in the X-Men universe, then you develop certain preconceptions. There will be uniforms, there will be heavy-handed allegories about the people whom society ostracises, there will probably be Patrick Stewart somewhere, delivering a sage voiceover about evolution.
Legion has none of these things.
You’d have a far better idea of what Legion is like if you focus on the other aspect that recommends it – it’s written, produced and directed by Noah Hawley, the off-kilter genius behind the Fargo TV series. It’s everything you’d expect from Hawley, even down to the fact that you can’t quite tell whether it takes place in our world or not. Legion has a character known only as The Eye who has one line in three episodes and looks like he just wandered in from one of the weirder Fargo episodes.
And yet Legion is a comic book adaptation. It is set in the X-Men universe. It just chooses not to use any of the conventions we’d expect from a comic book TV show. These days we expect comic adaptations – especially ones with ties to big-screen universes – to set out their stall early on, with casual references to Wonder Woman ‘acts of demigod’ or a Samuel L Jackson cameo. It takes Legion half an episode to even say the word ‘mutant’, and the only explicit X-Men tie-in in the whole thing is the ‘X’ sitting in the ‘o’ of Legion in its logo.
Legion is based around the comic character of David Haller - the son of Charles Xavier, probably the most powerful mutant on Earth, and about as sane and rational as a Twitter debate. You’d think Legion – and FX, the studio behind the show – would shout its Xavier connection from the rooftops in the very first scene. Instead, we’re still not sure whether Xavier is even going to be David’s father in this version of the character.
The first episode takes its sweet time, layering on the weirdness one step at a time, barely even confirming that David has powers for the first half hour. Instead, you could just be watching a brilliant show about a schizophrenic man and the very strange psychiatric hospital that he inhabits. Unlike most comic book shows, it’s not trying to piggy-back on the success of its parent-film, or the comic books it’s based on. It wants to be its own beast.
If you are a fan of the Legion comics, then you’ll recognise a lot. His comic book powers are present and correct, even if they take a while to be revealed, but this is a slow-burner, and there’s no guarantee that the series will choose any of the same paths as the comics. Remember, this is from the guy who threw a UFO into season two of Fargo, for no reason whatsoever. Legion is gloriously unpredictable.
The main accusation you can level at comic book adaptations is their lack of originality. They’re part of a wider problem caused by Hollywood and the TV industry preferring existing properties to anything new. Legion, like Fargo, is adapted from a pre-existing source. But, also like Fargo, that doesn’t mean it’s not overflowing with originality.
Legion is visually stunning and narratively skewiff. It depicts powers in a way that’s part-X-Men, part-Inception. There are huge chunks of it that make little sense, because that’s what happens when your point-of-view character is the ultimate unreliable narrator. David has no idea what’s real and what isn’t, and neither do we.
The cast aren’t what you’d expect from a comic book series either. David is played by Dan Stevens, still largely known as a ‘that posh bloke off Downton Abbey’, despite a string of creepy and charismatic roles since, and he plays David on a knife-edge between delightful naïf and dangerously out of control. Aubrey Plaza, of Parks and Recreation fame, plays David’s unhinged hospital buddy Lenny and the closest thing the show has to Xavier is Jean Smart as Melanie Bird, helping David learn some control.
There’s also a yellow blobby thing that looks like Peter Kay’s Doctor Who monster, a creepy child version of Frank Sidebottom and a Bollywood dance number, because why the hell not?
Legion is nothing like any comic book adaptation you’ve seen before, even the more adult ones like The Walking Dead and Preacher. There aren’t really any direct nods to the comics, or moments of overt fan-service. But then, it’s probably not like anything you’ve seen on TV before. Just strap in and prepare to be enjoyably confused.
Legion starts on FOX UK at 9pm tonight.