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Legion, FX’s new superhero show, is a landmark production in more ways than one

On set with the mind-bending new blockbuster series from the guy behind Fargo.

FX’s Legion is a visual trip unlike any other on TV.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Dan Stevens, the star of FX’s new X-Men series Legion, is in the middle of a scene that shouldn’t seem as complicated as it does.

His character David Haller, a former mental patient who’s discovering his condition might be misdiagnosed superpowers, is delivering a lecture to another character — a sort of “what have we learned so far?” catch-up of all of the information David has gathered about the season’s central mystery. (I’m seeing the season’s sixth episode out of eight being filmed.) He’s doing so in a lecture hall at a Vancouver university campus, the sort of place where professors might normally hold forth at length. Straightforward enough, right?

Well, consider that much of what Stevens is writing up on the board will have to match, perfectly, from take to take, the better for the visual effects team to come in and perk it up just a bit. And then consider that the person David is lecturing, sitting out there in the audience, is another version of David himself, that all of this (like so much on Legion) is taking place inside the man’s head.

I won’t say just why David is doing all of this, or what the scene might look like in the end, so as not to spoil anyone. But if every TV show is, to some degree, a gigantic puzzle assembled in the editing room, that’s particularly true for Legion, where the pieces have stranger, sharper edges than you’d expect, and even the simplest of scenes carries with it daunting complications.

All actors are used to what they’re doing on set being reconfigured in post-production. That’s often less true in the case of, say, gigantic popcorn movies, but on TV, what’s shot is usually pretty close to the final form, barring a few nips and tucks here and there to tighten things. Not so with Legion.

“You'll see a scene [in its completed form], and you'll think, 'That's what we were doing?’” laughs Jean Smart, who plays Melanie, the head of a research facility dedicated to understanding those with superhuman abilities.

Legion, in other words, wants to break the mold — for its network, for its star, and for showrunner Noah Hawley. Whether it will succeed is anybody’s guess, but on the surface, it’s both daunting and enthralling to look at, a TV blockbuster unlike any other.

For FX, Legion is a chance to do blockbuster TV the right way

This photo of Jeremie Harris as Ptonomy Wallace is just a cool photo.

In the wake of The Walking Dead’s seismic premiere back in 2010, FX president John Landgraf started talking with various reporters and critics about something he saw as a possible future for TV: the blockbuster model that has gradually hollowed out the American film industry might take over TV, too.

He likened it to Jaws launching the modern movie blockbuster — a sudden, out-of-nowhere success that was so huge that to not chase it was a bad business decision. Instead of a large variety of projects, at a number of budgetary levels, TV networks, like their movie studio cousins, would begin chasing the big numbers and big budgets of blockbuster popcorn projects. Idiosyncratic personal visions would wither away, just as the market for mid-budget films has largely disappeared.

There have been hints — a Game of Thrones here, a Stranger Things there — that this could happen. These projects post huge ratings and (even better in a TV industry driven by buzz as much as anything else) endless media speculation. But they also, for the most part, manage to tap into one of the things that gives TV a competitive advantage when it comes to spectacle-driven series: character development.

Game of Thrones might be known for its big battles and computer-generated dragons, but you really do care about the characters who fight in those battles and command those dragons. TV necessitates a character-first storytelling form, which pushes spectacle to the side.

And even if Landgraf was worried about blockbusters devouring TV whole (they haven’t so far!), he wasn’t averse to trying his hand at blockbuster TV, too. It just turned out that of all of the things FX is good at, serving up straightforwardly populist blockbuster hits is not one of them.

American Horror Story and American Crime Story offer up frequently terrific TV spins on the horror and true crime genres, but for as good as both can be, both reset with new characters and stories every season (and are thus more subject to the whims of the viewing public than something like The Walking Dead). Meanwhile, FX’s vampire drama The Strain was supposed to be its very own Walking Dead, but it tried far too hard to elevate trashy material and, instead, wound up in some netherworld between popcorn TV and prestige TV. Viewers tuned out in droves.

For Legion, FX had two secret weapons. The first was Hawley (more about that shortly). The second was its relationship with movie studio and corporate cousin 20th Century Fox — which owns the movie rights to the X-Men characters but, pointedly, doesn’t have full control over the TV rights, which are retained in part by the comics company Marvel.

The legal headaches surrounding the handful of Marvel characters whose movie rights are controlled by Fox (thanks to the comics publisher selling off said rights in the midst of a financial crisis in the 1990s) have led to everything from conspiracy theories that Marvel’s comics feature the X-Men less (in order to boost heroes whose rights Marvel still controls) to a bitter lawsuit over the TV show Mutant X. Suffice to say, Marvel and Fox haven’t worked together on a project in a long time.

Or, rather, they hadn’t until Legion, which is the first time both companies have played nice together in more than a decade. And according to longtime X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner, a big reason for that was FX’s involvement in the project, particularly the network’s focus on letting creative people (or, in this case, entire comics-publishing brands) do their thing.

“We've really quite benefited from each other, and it's been a flourishing partnership. I'm hopeful it will spill over into the movies. We’ll see,” she said.

Despite all of this, Legion isn’t quite your typical X-Men superhero slugfest. There are moments of superpowered mayhem, to be sure, but just as much of the series takes place inside David’s mind, as he tries to understand exactly who he is and what’s happening to him. This is blockbuster TV subject matter — but it’s still an idiosyncratic personal vision. Which brings us back to Hawley.

For Noah Hawley, this is a chance to become one of TV’s most powerful showrunners

The relationship between David and Syd (Rachel Keller) is the show’s center.

If you were going to pick a writer to turn an X-Men character — even a more experimental X-Men character like David Haller, whose powers tend toward the mind-bending — into a TV series, you might not land on Noah Hawley.

The novelist and creator of several failed but intriguing one-season broadcast network shows (The Unusuals, My Generation, etc.) hit the jackpot with his 2014 TV adaptation of Fargo, the Coen brothers’ 1996 rural noir film set in the snowbound Midwest. Hawley’s adaptation both deepened the movie’s themes and invented its own set of characters and mythology that occasionally reached out to brush against the original. It was quite the feat — especially in 2015’s second season, which pushed even further into this imaginary, bloody Midwest. All of this suggests Hawley is a creative writer; little of it suggests he’s your guy for superhero fun.

Hawley himself brushes off these concerns. “My whole career is based on taking genres and trying to reinvent them as character pieces, so to that extent, taking on this genre felt like another great challenge,” he tells me, saying he’s interested in how character-driven television can let him tell the “existential” story that isn’t being told in superhero films.

But at the same time, he adds, “If I had to pick a comic from my youth that was a book that I never missed, it was certainly the X-Men. ... They’re people who don’t feel like they fit in anywhere, and these are the stories of their empowerment. Something kids are mocking me for could really be my secret power.”

Indeed, the more Hawley explains what drew him to Legion — his love of the classic X-Men comics’ character dynamics, the opportunity to do the sort of in-camera practical effects he favors over computer-generated ones — the more it seems like, sure, he might be just the guy to create TV’s next superhero opus.

But there’s a hidden subtext here: If Legion hits, Hawley could become, simultaneously, one of TV’s most respected auteurs and a massively successful overseer of multiple TV series. (In addition to Fargo, which returns in April, he has an upcoming TV adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.) Plenty of TV impresarios are either one or the other, but the Venn diagram intersection between the two is a space occupied, really, by only two names: Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy.

Premiere Of FX's 'Legion' - Red Carpet
Noah Hawley.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Doubling the challenge for Hawley is just how unlike Fargo this new series is. Where Fargo is talky and ominous, its bursts of violence spiking through its icy exterior with relative infrequency, Legion is grand and goofy. Its pilot — directed by Hawley — is a constant barrage of ideas and images, threatening at all times to overload the audience with information, begging everybody watching to trust they’ll catch up eventually. (Following episodes — I’ve seen three total — are slightly more conventional, if “conventional” is the right word to describe a series where people chase each other through one character’s subconscious.)

Even more remarkable, then, is that the crew for Legion is mostly the crew for Fargo, who decamped from Calgary to film the superhero show in Vancouver. And two of the series’ cast members — Smart and Rachel Keller — are Fargo veterans, too. Hawley, it would seem, inspires loyalty.

“The way that Noah puts groups together is he picks people who are the best and the freest at what they do. It's a really open and collaborative environment,” says Amber Midthunder, who plays a mysterious new character named Kerry Loudermilk (really).

Every time I thought I had Legion figured out, Hawley would jet off in some new direction. (After three episodes, I’m pretty convinced it’s a horror show, a notion Hawley doesn’t disabuse me of, pointing to the word “uncanny” in Uncanny X-Men.) That could become exhausting for viewers, crew, and actors alike, but everybody I speak to seems on board for the crazy ride.

“He has incredible bravery and trust in his actors. He doesn't reveal a whole lot. He's really economical with the information he gives you. Even when you're not really trusting yourself, you can trust him and trust that he’ll be honest with you,” says Keller. But when I ask her how much she knew about her character going into the show, she can only laugh. She knows what she needs to know — even now, after filming season one — and that’s it.

Hawley, as Stevens puts it to me, is a lockbox.

This is also a chance to talk about mental illness — with only occasional success

Is David superpowered or mentally ill? The show sometimes stumbles when it tries to walk that line.

The trickiest line Legion has to walk is the one between its depiction of mental illness and its depiction of superhuman abilities.

David is diagnosed as a young man as a paranoid schizophrenic, and he meets his love interest, Sydney (Keller), in a mental institution, where the two slowly come to realize that their diagnoses are incorrect — that they are, in fact, mutants. (Legion is set in a non-specific ’60s/’70s milieu, before mutants are widely known throughout the X-Men universe.)

It’s both an interesting idea and a conundrum. Lean too far in one direction, and you risk saying that mental health issues literally equate to superpowers. Lean too far in the other, and you risk demonizing mental illness. Legion stumbles a number of times in the early going around this particular point, but the more it delves into David’s subconscious, the more it digs into the idea that sometimes, diagnosis is prophecy.

Or, as Stevens puts it: “When you have a diagnosed, institutionalized psychiatric disorder, your behavior is almost prescribed as much as it is observed. This is what's happening. This is who you are. This is how you're going to behave.”

In other words, if the world treats you like you have a debilitating mental illness, especially in a time when mental illness was much more poorly understood than it is now — even if you have superpowers — is there a difference between who the world says you are and who you actually are?

Here’s how Hawley puts it, in terms of Sydney. Her abilities mean she can’t touch others (for reasons I won’t spoil). So if you live your life not touching anybody or interacting with them, and you’re diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder, isn’t the distinction between that disorder and a superpower essentially meaningless?

“The goal was not to lose sight of that idea that all of these characters, even though they don’t have the mental illnesses they were once ascribed with, that doesn’t mean their abilities haven’t created a personality disorder of some type,” Hawley says.

Stevens, probably best known still for his work as the romantic lead of the first few seasons of Downton Abbey, offers a performance in Legion that blends that influence (in genuinely sweet and loving scenes with Syd) with the unnerving sociopath he played in the sadly underseen indie film The Guest.

Donner describes David as a character torn between his capacity for evil and his capacity for love. The show constantly teases that David might plunge into darkness wholesale, even as the ragtag band of mutants he falls in with (because make no mistake, this is a “mission of the week” superhero show, only all of the missions so far take place in David’s mind) hopes to keep him on track. Only his tenuous bond to Syd seems to keep him from doing so.

It’s, thus, a story about the fracture between wanting to do things for oneself and for a burgeoning community that one becomes part of. David has spent his life feeling like the world is out to get him — and now that he knows it is (in the form of those who would hunt down mutants), well, who would blame him for ditching his new friends and striking out on his own, maybe even honing his powers to a sharp, brutal point?

And that, finally, feels like something that fits with the past work of Hawley, Stevens, and even FX — both strikingly different and comfortably the same, just with higher stakes.

“You’re telling a story that has to be a myth. These are our myths. These are our gods,” Hawley says. “It needs to feel bigger than a normal story.”

Legion debuts Wednesday, February 8, at 10 pm Eastern on FX.