First episode impressions: ‘Legion’ (TV review)

My first-episode impression of “Legion” (10 p.m. Eastern, Wednesdays, FX) is “What the heck did I just watch?” The 90-minute premiere is undeniably a mess. There’s no doubt it’s an INTENTIONAL mess, but whether you’re willing to stay on this ride will depend entirely on how much you like mind-trip TV shows.

Created by “Fargo’s” Noah Hawley, “Legion” is the long-overdue first live-action “X-Men” TV series. (Unless you count “Mutant X” from 2001-04 – but most people don’t. Despite sharing a title with a Marvel comic and being produced by Marvel, it’s technically not an “X-Men” series.) And this is not an easy entry point into the mythology, even for folks who have seen all nine “X-Men” films.

David Haller (Dan Stevens) is in a psychiatric ward, being treated for his unstable telekinetic powers. In flashbacks, we see that he reacted to every standard human trauma from childhood through young-adulthood by ransacking his surroundings with his mind. Although he tried to hang himself with an electric cord at one point, he apparently failed, and now his days consist of a standard regimen of pills and repetitive counseling.

Stock psych-ward crazy girl Lenny (“Parks and Recreation’s” Aubrey Plaza) is his one friend; she passes the time by snarkily commenting on other patients, but David just sits there quietly, conveying a sense of spiritual depth. Or nothingness.

His whole life brightens when Syd (Rachel Keller, unrecognizable from her “Fargo” role) is admitted. He asks if she’ll be his girlfriend, she agrees, and by the end of the episode they’re exchanging “I love yous.” Sort of like Rogue, Syd can’t be touched due to her powers. Whereas Rogue sucks out people’s life essences and powers, Syd body-swaps with them. Or mind-swaps, depending on your perspective.

Superficially, there’s a lot to admire about “Legion.” The set designs have a nice 1970s art-deco sci-fi aesthetic with the wallpaper and furniture, although there’s enough modern technology that the show has to be set in present day.

The final sequence – when David escapes from the ward with some new allies, having learned it’s actually a secret government project – features special effects on par with the movies. One of the rescuers, who isn’t yet named, uses his own telekinetic powers to send opposing gunmen flying into oblivion. It looks cool.

But for my money, the amount of unanswered questions in the first episode outweighs the hooks. David and Syd broadly fit into the category of “likable,” but they are such enigmas that it’s hard to feel invested in their fates.

What’s worse, the questions tend to be frustrating more than fascinating. For instance:

  • When is the series set in relation to the “X-Men” films, and is it on the original timeline or the reset timeline that started with “Days of Future Past?”
  • David body-swaps with Syd, but later they somehow are back in their original bodies. How, when and why does that happen? It can’t be a plot hole, because this show is from the man behind “Fargo,” and therefore smart. Or is it a plot hole after all?
  • Is Lenny always a figment of David’s imagination, or is it just in that one scene?
  • Overall, what parts of the episode are real, and what parts take place in David’s imagination or memories? And what are the imagined memories, and what are the real ones?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than OK with some answers being diverted to future episodes; that is the nature of serialized TV, after all. I don’t mind that we don’t immediately know the backstory of the conflict between the government agency and the mutants who rescue David – or how this group led by Melanie Bird (Jean Smart, another “Fargo” veteran) relates to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

I don’t need David’s full potential outlined right away. It’s enough for now to understand that he has telekinetic powers and that the government scientists believe he could be the most powerful mutant yet discovered.

(Still, all-powerful superheroes do make me worry that they’ll be boring. A recent episode of “The Mindy Project” parodies the Marvel movie saga with Dr. Universe, who has “the power to manipulate the universe.” One character observes: “Kind of an unspecific power, isn’t it? It could mean anything. It could mean nothing.”)

But “Legion” has put too many basic elements of the show into the Question category.

In one sequence, Syd explains to David that they are taking a walk through his memory, not reality. For a split-second, I got a Philip K. Dick novel vibe, because it seems like Syd is starting to explain it. But it doesn’t last; by episode’s end, we still don’t know whether there’s an internal logic to what we’ve seen, or if it’s a bunch of BS. (In PKD novels, the premises are insane, but they are understandable within that insane context.)

I’ll come back for another episode for the same reasons I tuned into this first one: The series comes from the talented creator of “Fargo,” and it’s part of the mostly engaging “X-Men” film (and now TV) saga. But I’m disappointed that, after the pilot episode, I can’t add to the list of reasons to tune in.

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