Skip to main content

I know what I am. I’m the magic man.

Legion
Season One

(SPOILERS) I suspect it’s no coincidence that my favourite comic book adaptations tend to be ones that don’t pay an awful lot of heed to staying within standardised genre limits, be it Tony Stark out of the suit with a kid sidekick of Iron Man Three, the altered states romping of Hulk or now the pan-fried head trip of Legion. Ironically, the latter was co-produced with Marvel Television, whose Netflix shows have been on the determinedly moribund side. Indeed, Legion feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison, if perhaps lacking that certain something that would truly send it into the stratosphere.


That’s partly because, however stylistically daring Noah Hawley’s series is, however beguilingly confused the mind of its protagonist becomes, and however evidently not in thrall it is to offering straightforward superheroics (of which there are very little), Legion definitely does conform to the genre’s limitations of defined supervillainy and quantified narrative devices and solutions. I don’t especially care that David Haller (Dan Stevens) is Charles Xavier’s son (and even less whether or not Patrick Stewart will cameo), or that Big Bad the Shadow King is an established entity of comic lore; I’m only really interested in how Hawley uses the character as a leaping off point to do his own thing. And when he’s doing his own thing, more often than not, Legion is a great show, firing on all cylinders in a not dissimilar fashion to Joss Whedon series of – now – old (say, the last couple of seasons of Angel), but with added visual aplomb. As such, the series is much more interesting when exploring David’s uncertain mindscape than when it settles into the well-ploughed terrain of a card-carrying evil mutant with standard nefarious motivations.


Hawley has namechecked a host of inspirational elements, from David Lynch to Pink Floyd (Sydney Barret, actually using Floyd in the last episode) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to Terrence Malick to Breaking Bad (inevitable?) to, in terms of design aesthetic, “a 1964 Terence Stamp movie” and Hannibal (a show I didn’t care for at all, apart from its palette), and you can see those elements, but they tend to evidence that there isn’t anything fundamentally altered or askew in Legion’s construction; it’s all surface trappings. As talented as Hawley is in composing his narratives, it rather makes you think in retrospect that inserting a UFO into the last season of Fargo wasn’t a wild and whacky idea but rather his idea of what a wild and whacky person’s idea would be.


That’s why I keep coming back to Whedon when I think of this show, both in terms of its broad, cartoonish characterisations (albeit fortunately absent the more egregious smart-mouthed pop culture quipping) and core Scooby gang of heroes, but also in its very measured, calculated approach to twists and reveals that, no matter how much they exert a grip, never truly take you out of the box, even when they apparently have; you’ll always end up back in a safe place, even when you think there’s been a game changer (albeit, the final season of Angel comes very close in places and is certainly something one couldn’t go too far wrong in aiming for).  There’s a comfortable, finite quality to the design of their TV universes that is only underlined by limitations of scale and budget (Legion’s world is a very limited one, which works like gangbusters when trapped within the confines of a mental institution, less so when trying to depict the environment outside).


One can expect too much of a show of course, and the willingness of Legion to set itself “out there” initially was inevitably, I think, going to result in some backtracking. It needs to bear some resemblance to the Marvel brand from which it has spun off, so if Hawley had really intended to go the “full Lynch” I doubt if he’d ever have got the green light. So too, there’s no mistaking what we have here for the philosophical probing of the oft-vilified Damon Lindelof, or any kind of interrogation of the nature of society and one’s place in it, such that when I’ve seen comments invoke The Prisoner I’m wondering if they’ve only seen the remake (even in terms of design, the comparison is far off the mark).


Even Legion’s take on mental illness fully embraces a frizzy, pop aesthetic, ready to discard and embrace it as the mood takes the writers (in the penultimate episode, David’s rational mind appears to cast off doubts of his afflicted state with the boxing up of the Shadow King, but it would make for a very pedestrian subsequent season if he becomes entirely stable, particularly since Legion’s main appeal thus far has been the untapped hollows of his mind). A better yardstick, both in terms of losing one’s marbles and design, might be Theodore J Flicker’s The President’s Analyst, but to pass muster in that regard, Legion would have to take on board a satirical element, and thus far there’s scant evidence the show is about anything beyond its ability to pull narrative rugs and stage wildly invigorating dance routines/musical set pieces.


Cary: You have a very large amygdala.
David: Thank you.

And yet, many times this over the tired, bloated Netflix shows. From episode to episode (and I admit I watched this over a couple of nights, rather than on first broadcast, so it may not have percolated in quite the manner it did for those who saw it the “traditional” way), Legion continued to surprise and impress, even if was mostly on a stylistic level – something that should never be underestimated, especially when style is so often a conservative thing on TV, even at its most luxuriant – flipping in the first episode from David’s interior, medicated state to the reveal of Sydney’s particular skillset and then providing one of those Escher-like potentialities that, alas, only go so far (“This is your memory of the day you called the hospital. Not the actual day, I’m inside your memory”), as Syd warns him inside his mind. Like Episode Six, where the Shadow King is controlling the state of play, returning us to the opening passages of the first episode, there’s a virtuosity on display here only diffused by our gradually becoming fully cognisant of the limitations of how crazy Hawley’s willing to get. Which is, no further than this being a game played. When a character asks “Could we still be in David’s mind?” in the fourth episode, the answer is: this show’s not really willing to turn into the season closer of Twin Peaks for its entire duration, so no.


In terms of characterisation, then, the heightened quality goes to emphasise how little substance there is to anyone, as opposed to Fargo, where the broad strokes can be underplayed and so given more resonance. Rachel Keller made a big impact in a relatively small role in Fargo, but here, after the first episode, Syd doesn’t really say or do all that much to make an impact; instead, she tends to be defined by David. It’s all downhill from discovering her superpower. Likewise, Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) does little of consequence after the second episode, besides firing a machine gun. Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder) Loudermilk are much more consistently effective due to their interdependent relationship, one that feels like the most Whedonesque thing here, particularly when ructions develop, but they’re still defined by their visual sense (Kerry fighting heavies while Cary mimes her actions in the lab, playing mental games as patients in Clockworks). Better is Melanie (Jean Smart) and her distress over the inability of Oliver (Jermaine Clement) to remember her, his wife.


Oliver: May I introduce you to my friend, Jules Verne.

Indeed, Oliver’s astral hangout, and method of getting out and about by means of a virtual diving suit, is the most appealingly batty conceit in the show, such that, as with David’s undefined discord early on, the series deflates a little once he becomes corporeal once more. Clement is wonderful, of course, encouraged to indulge both his penchant for singing (notably in the final episode, when he takes off after a rendition of If I Ruled the World) and his ear for the absurd (“Too bad” he comments on being told bras are back, before recovering with “How do you feel about beat poetry?”) and even precisely underplaying the tragic beat of remembering Melanie just as the Shadow King is about to take possession of him. If the series is going to maintain a level of safety in not really pushing its capacity to go the full Lynch, it could use more of this kind of goofiness of ideas and visuals.


David: And you’re British.
David’s Rational Mind: Like I said, I’m your rational mind.

Stevens’ performance is masterfully modulated, of course, although we’re occasionally led by the nose when it’s entirely unnecessary (does he really need to start wearing black when the Shadow King is assuming an influence in the fifth episode?), and the bugs crawling through the fruit are very well-worn “evil under the skin” cliché. The “revelations” concerning his adoption (Professor X) and the Shadow King never really take on a compelling quality, any more than the standard motivational subplot concerning the threat to his sister (Katie Aselton). It’s lucky then, that much of the unfolding of the reveal elements occurs in the sixth and seventh episodes, set mostly within the mental landscape of the Shadow King’s version of Clockworks, and that the means of exposition (David conversing with his rational mind, laid out on an animated blackboard) are pocked with knowing humour (“Boo-hoo. Focus” instructs his rational mind at one point. “You’re right... I am pretty. I am loved” responds David).


Aside from Mackenzie Gray’s permed Tom Waits-alike The Eye, the expressly monstrous aspects of Legion failed to really hold my attention, certainly not in terms of offering the stuff of nightmares. “The Devil with Yellow Eyes”, announced almost as soon as the show starts but revealed a little later, just isn’t that scary, looking rather like a Sin City reject by way of the obese vampire from Blade, while the picture book cut-out The Angriest Boy in the World, The Babadook by way of Frank Sidebottom, is similarly derivative and lacking in a real frisson.


On the other hand, when Aubrey Plaza is revealed as the embodiment of the Shadow King, leading to such sequences as her dancing around her office to Nina Simone’s I Feel Good or – in possibly the standout passage of the season –menacing the hospital inmates a la Tim Burton meets Robert Smith in silent movie fashion, complete with caption cards, Legion shifts into the positively inspired (but again, it’s the kind of inspired that gave us Buffy’s Hush or Once More (With Feeling)). The fake reality is an oft-used trope, to the extent that it might be labelled a tired device rather than the relatively fresh one it one was (say, around when The X-Files used it in Field Trip), so interesting things being done with it tend to stand out.


Final episodes as epilogues can be a relief when a show is as highly strung as Game of Thrones. I’m not sure it succeeds so much here. Some of the visuals are nice (the tree of soldiers), but the decision to switch focus completely to a character not seen since the opener (Hamish Linklater’s Clark), now with burns over 40% of his body following the swimming pool incident, is the sort of perspective switch Lindelof might have pulled after a whole season of Lost. It’s mildly interesting, but it smacks more of a self-conscious device than something equipped with sincerity, substance or intent to really explore a “bad guy”, despite David’s protestations that he wants to avoid a war and Hawley’s desire not to “send a message that all conflict can only be resolved through battle”. As such, I mostly had in mind the first Austin Powers’ depiction of the family of an evil henchman having to deal with his offhand death.


Added to which, David’s abduction in the mid-credits scene just felt silly. Rather than a cliffhanger, it left a taste of anti-climax and probably would have been better cut out completely, really. Season One certainly delivered the goods visually, then (and in the case of the Cloud Atlas-inspired exploding kitchen, several times on repeat, to get its money worth), and musically (one wonders how much a soundtrack album including the likes of The Who, Serge Gainsbourg, The Rolling Stones, Jane’s Addiction, Thomas Dolby, Pink Floyd and T-Rex would cost to licence, which probably explains why only Jeff Russo’s incidental music is available). I’m mildly intrigued at what Hawley has in store for the second run, but I’m also wary that he hasn’t now established too level a playing field for an ostensibly antic series, and that it may lack the potential to truly surprise. I’ll happily keep coming back for the musical numbers, but I’m nursing the hope it can be something more than that.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than a…

You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

Oh look, there’s Colonel Mortimer, riding down the street on a dinosaur!

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
(SPOILERS) There’s no getting round the dinosaur skeleton in the room here: yellow face. From the illustrious writer-director team who brought us Mary Poppins, no less. Disney’s cheerfully racist family movie belongs to a bygone era, but appreciating its merits doesn’t necessarily requires one to subscribe to the Bernard Manning school of ethnic sensitivity.

I’m not going to defend the choice, but, if you can get past that, and that may well be a big if, particularly Bernard Bresslaw’s Fan Choy (if anything’s an unwelcome reminder of the Carry Ons lesser qualities, it’s Bresslaw and Joan Sims) there’s much to enjoy. For starters, there’s two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ustinov (as mastermind Hnup Wan), funny in whatever he does (and the only Poirot worth his salt), eternally berating his insubordinate subordinate Clive Revill (as Quon).

This is a movie where, even though its crude cultural stereotyping is writ large, the dialogue frequen…

It's not an exact science, this business.

The Mummy (2017)
(SPOILERS) A pinch of salt is usually needed when reports of a blockbuster’s rep as great or disastrous start singing from the same song sheet, as more often than not, they’re somewhere in between. A week ago, Wonder Woman was being hailed as some kind of miracle (or wonder), when really, it’s just another decent-but-formulaic superhero movie. This week, there have been post-mortems up the wazoo over The Mummy’s less-than-remarkable opening gross (which have a predictably US-centric flavour; it’s still the biggest global figure for a Tom Cruise movie). Is The Mummy as terrible as has been made out? No, of course not. It isn’t particularly good, but that doesn’t make it significantly worse than any dozen or so mediocre blockbusters you’d care to pick that have been lavished with far less opprobrium.

The thinking behind the savaging is understandable, though. There’s so much hubris on display here, it’s ridiculous, from Universal assuming they can fashion a Dark Universe …

The head is missing... and... he's the wrong age.

Twin Peaks 3.7: There’s a body all right.
First things first: my suggestion that everyone’s favourite diminutive hitman, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler, had been hired by the Mitchum brothers was clearly erroneous in the extreme, although the logistics of how evil Coop had the contingency plan in place to off Lorraine and Dougie-Coop remains a little unclear right now. As is how he was banged up with the apparent foresight to have on hand ready blackmail tools to ensure the warden would get him out (and why did he wait so long about it, if he could do it off the bat?)


Launching right in with no preamble seems appropriate for his episode, since its chock-a-block with exposition and (linear) progression, almost an icy blast of what settles for reality in Twin Peaks after most of what has gone before this season, the odd arm-tree aside. Which might please James Dyer, who in the latest Empire “The Debate”, took the antagonistic stance to the show coming back and dismissed it as “gibbering nonsen…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

I have a problem with my liver.

Twin Peaks 3.6 Don’t die
The season resumes form with the sixth episode, and incongruity abounds – as much as anything in Twin Peaks is any more or less incongruous than anything else – from the most endearing to the most alarming. The latter of which is up there with the very nastiest nastiness witnessed in a David Lynch joint in the form of butcher for hire Ike “The Spike” Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek), the most alarming killer dwarf since Donald Sutherland led himself on a wild goose chase around Venice in Don’t Look Now.


Lynch’s use of music in Don’t die is both eclectic and exemplary. He concludes with Sharon von Etten crooning Tarifa over the credits, but it’s Ike going on a bloody frenzy to the innocuous and innocent sound of BluntedBeatz’ “I AM” Oldschool HipHop Beat that really sets the episode on edge. This is Lynch at his most visceral, immediate and palpably perturbing. You hear it before you see it, the screams of the first victim in Lorraine’s office, before the pint-…

If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess.

Moana (2016)
(SPOILERS) Disney’s 56th animated feature (I suppose they can legitimately exclude Song of the South – which the Mouse House would rather forget about completely – on the grounds it’s a live action/animation hybrid) feels like one of their most rigidly formulaic yet, despite its distinctive setting and ethnicity. It probably says a lot about me that I tend to rate this kind of fare for its wacky animal sidekick as opposed to the studiously familiar hero’s journey of Moana’s title character.


You can even see the John Lasseter-Pixar influence in the fricking cute kids burbling through the opening scenes, before Moana (Auli’I Cravalho) arrives at teenagehood and heirdom to becoming the tribal chief on the Polynesian island of Motunui. And you can tick off the boxes of your Disney female protagonist required to prove herself (over-protective father opposing her desire to get out there and explore the world, meeting an unsympathetic male in whom she instils emotional growth). T…