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FX’s Legion, Syfy’s The Magicians, and the reign of BIG MOMENT TV

The intriguing but empty X-Men spinoff debuted its second season this week, while the glorious fantasy ended a terrific third.

The Magicians, Legion
The cast of The Magicians formally challenges the cast of Legion to a dance-off.
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.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episodes of the week for April 1 through 7 are “Chapter 9,” the second season premiere of FX’s Legion, and “Will You Play With Me?” the third season finale of Syfy’s The Magicians.

In an era of so much TV that it would take four months to watch one week’s worth (and that doesn’t even count streaming service debuts), I get that shows need to do something to stand out. And nothing stands out more than a big, buzzy moment that gets viewers talking, especially if they’re talking on social media.

I’ve written a lot in the past about the rise of this “moment-based” storytelling and how it’s benefited some of the biggest shows of our time (most notably Game of Thrones). But the obvious downside of such series is that they can occasionally feel like disconnected greatest hits albums — like shows where there’s no core, only a bunch of things happening.

FX’s Legion, which began its second season this week, and Syfy’s The Magicians, which ended its third, are both shows in the “big moments” school of TV storytelling, and they have very different approaches to solving the problem of finding a workable core.

Legion goes all in on wild weirdness and unusual visuals, but it keeps the storytelling at its center very simple and, ultimately, easy to follow. The Magicians, meanwhile, is willing to do just about anything to keep you watching, but it trusts that you’ll become invested in its deep bench of characters.

One of these approaches works much better than the other — and if you’ve read anything I’ve written, you can probably guess my preference — but let’s look at both series in more detail anyway.

Legion sets up its second season as a maze — but it’s always overcareful to let you know what it’s about

David (Dan Stevens, in chair) is in trouble as season two of Legion begins.

I like Legion, Noah Hawley’s mind-bending field trip into the X-Men mythos, centered on David (Dan Stevens), a mutant who can do lots and lots of interesting things but mostly seems to focus on manipulating or entering people’s minds. But I often feel like I should like it more. The first four episodes of season two (and don’t worry, I’m only going to talk about the premiere) left me feeling even more of a disconnect between what I was seeing and what I was thinking than ever before.

Make no mistake: Legion is a big candy store of a show. Hold open your plastic baggy and let it pour in enormous scoopfuls of weird imagery, of people standing motionless except for their chattering teeth, of David trying to communicate with a future version of his girlfriend who draws images with what looks like a sparkler, of men with baskets on their heads and mustachioed women who speak in robotic voices. There is no visual or storytelling idea in the series that it won’t make the absolute most.

And this is fun, to a point. I’m never less than entertained when watching Legion. I love the wild abandon with which Hawley and Nathaniel Halpern (who co-wrote season two’s episodes with Hawley) approach their story. The series’ directors (with Tim Mielants directing the premiere) freely change aspect ratios and try unusual camera angles and lean into the crazy color schemes and bizarre moments in the story. (Mielants especially seems thrilled to shoot a dance sequence, even though few of the actors are great dancers.)

But I’m constantly wondering why I’m supposed to care about any of this. A candy store show doesn’t necessarily need to give viewers a strong empathetic connection to its characters or story, but it doesn’t hurt. Since the point of the show, on some level, is tracing the maze inside David’s head to whatever is at his core, he is by necessity a cipher, which makes it all the worse that so many of the other characters are too. Legion engages me in the moment, but I don’t know that I ever think about it between episodes.

What really stinks is the way the series underlines every single core point, afraid viewers might miss it. David finds out that the villainous Shadow King (a sort of viral brain hitchhiker who is the series’ main antagonist) is on a quest to find his original body, which would make him unstoppable, so the organization David works for is trying to find the body first. Learning this, he says, “So it’s a race,” as though we might not have figured that out on our own.

The series is even worse about this in explaining character motivations. Two women have a lengthy conversation about how they make bad decisions because of their lovers — both of whom have been absent for long periods of time — and they can’t stop saying they make those bad decisions because their lover is “my man.”

It’s a scene so baffling I kept expecting it to turn into a sequence where both sang country songs in a karaoke bar. It would be one thing if any of these characters seemed as if they felt real passion for those they loved, but we’re mostly told they do, rarely shown. (It’s also a little weird how much Hawley has struggled to turn the show’s women into vivid characters when his earlier series Fargo did so without much trouble at all.)

Similarly, a dialogue refrain throughout the premiere is the warning, “Beware of thoughts that are not your own,” a reference to the mental plague that someone (probably the Shadow King) is spreading through humanity, causing those rooms full of chattering teeth. This is an interesting idea in a world where we’re all guarding against, well, thoughts that are not our own, against the reality-bending attempts of social media exploiters and the president himself. Yet I’m not sure Hawley and Halpern have anything to say about this beyond, “Isn’t this an interesting and prescient idea?”

This idea — that reality is constructed, and it’s too easy for our own realities to be diverted and subverted by outside influences — is a fun one for the series to play around with. But I’m not sure it arises organically from the characters or story so much as it’s imposed upon them from on high. (Themes imposed from on high are a frequent problem with Hawley’s work.) Sequences about delusions and the nature of reality occasionally intersperse the narrative, little parables narrated by Jon Hamm, and they were both my favorite thing about the premiere and almost entirely separate from everything else.

And yet ... Legion is so much fun when it’s really cooking that I can’t write it off entirely. There was a time in the middle of season one when I felt like it might all be heading somewhere, but the only place it’s ever heading is toward further things it thinks are interesting and cool. Someday, it will run out of those things, and that will be a frustrating day. But we’re not there yet.

The Magicians went for broke on character in season three — and it worked

The Magicians
The cast of The Magicians visits an alternate reality.
Eric Milner/Syfy

I am not 100 percent sure I could tell you, with any clarity, the events of the plot in season three of The Magicians. Where Legion’s plotting is ultimately pretty simple, The Magicians keeps twisting itself into curlicues, tighter and tighter with every season. A bunch of things happened, and I could explain any of them in isolation, but I don’t know that I could hook them all up to each other and make sense of the plot.

It doesn’t matter. For most of its third season, The Magicians was on fire, bouncing from idea to idea with a reckless abandon that was infectious. One episode would be a series of short stories; another would be a musical. One episode would visit an alternate timeline (and mostly abandon the series’ frenetic style in the process), while another would stop the plot in its tracks for a lengthy montage in which two characters fell in love, aged, and then died, all while trying to solve a magic mosaic. (They were resurrected via plot shenanigans, but still remembered that alternate life.)

The Magicians is nowhere near as ostentatious as Legion, but it’s a better show on almost every level that matters because it’s constantly thinking about how it can use its crazy ideas to comment on its characters and their motivations and desires. Sure, The Magicians has three full seasons under its belt, while Legion is only beginning its second. But even at comparable points in both shows, The Magicians was far more interested in the emotional and psychological arcs of its main characters, especially Quentin Coldwater (a protagonist slowly realizing he’s not a protagonist, played by Jason Ralph) and Julia Wicker (a young woman only beginning to come into her own power, played by Stella Maeve).

That’s the sneaky way the series gets you. It reels you in with transdimensional messenger bunnies (yes, this is a thing that exists on the show) or gigantic flying boats, then socks you with an emotional payoff you won’t see coming, like Quentin’s slow reconciliation with his father or Julia sacrificing everything she has to save her friends, again and again.

The central story — magic has left the world, and our heroes have to turn it back on — is really an excuse to talk about trauma and mental illness and finding purpose in a life you know to be purposeless. The third season was so good because the characters all knew their damage would only be intensified by turning magic back on, but they also knew it was what they had to do anyway.

It would be a mistake to call The Magicians hugely class-conscious, but in season three, it even worked in some sneaky critiques of American capitalism, via a very rich magician family that turned out to have built its riches atop the backs of fairy slave labor and exploitation (right down to fairies it harvested to turn into a kind of magic-enhancing drug).

The fairies, presented mostly as antagonists in season two, turned out to have a reason to be so pissed off at humanity, and finding the kind of reparations that would balance the scales turned out to be appropriately difficult. What’s more, this family kept finding ways to hoard more and more magic, only increasing the inequality of the show’s most elastic metaphor.

The last half-hour of the finale ended up being almost all about character, as our heroes went into a castle built as a prison for hideous monsters and found that only one monster was left — and he embodied loneliness and naked want and unquenchable desire. He’ll clearly be the fourth season’s main antagonist, and while I won’t dare spoil the cliffhanger the season ends on (because it’s so good), it is, once again, an appropriately character-based one, rooted in the idea that the relationships between these people have grown so complicated that if you pluck any one of their heartstrings you cause them all to vibrate at once.

The Magicians will eventually run out of steam, I suppose, because viewers inevitably get wise to a series’ tricks. But even when it does, it won’t take away from how this third season navigated a path between wild storytelling diversions and good, character-based plotting. It never leaves me shaking my head at its audaciousness in the way Legion does, but I’m going to be thinking about what’s up with Quentin, Julia, and company much more in the long, long months before season four debuts.

Legion airs Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern on FX, with its first season available on Hulu. The Magicians is available on Netflix — the first two seasons for now, with season three following later in 2018 — and will return to Syfy for season four in early 2019.