By Jim Sabataso
Where do I even begin with “Legion”? The FX series, based on the Marvel Comics X-Men character of the same name, is a dense, mind-bending and occasionally inscrutable visual trip. It’s also one of the best comic-book adaptations currently on television.
Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) plays David Haller, the son of X-Men founder Charles Xavier. Like his father, David is a formidable telepath. For most of his life David has been tormented by the psychic being known as the Shadow King. Season one dealt with David freeing himself from the monster’s thrall. Now in season two, David and his band of fellow mutants are working to track down the Shadow King before he can possess anyone else.
To accomplish their mission, David’s team has joined forces with Division 3, a bizarre and mysterious government agency populated by child guards, mustachioed female androids, a cow that may or may not exist and a leader who wears a wicker basket on his head. (The set design and wardrobe on this show continues to be delightfully retro and weird as hell.)
It’s all pretty far-out stuff. Fortunately, showrunner Noah Hawley (the “Fargo” TV series) keeps two hands firmly on the wheel as he tells this intriguing, complex story.
Hawley’s creativity is on full display in the ways he depicts psychic combat on the astral plane. The iconic comic-book splash pages don’t necessarily translate well into live action — at least not on a cable network budget — so Hawley must get innovative, setting encounters in visually striking locations and using dance to represent conflict.
We are once again treated to an elaborate dance routine this season, featuring Stevens, Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny and Jermaine Clement’s Oliver Bird. The three-way dance-off is used as a visual metaphor for David exchanging psychic blows with Shadow King via two of his possessed pawns. It’s a kinetic, well-choreographed scene that is both entertaining and effective.
Hawley doubles down on the weirdness in this season’s third episode, which is one of the most narratively ambitious hours of television I’ve seen in some time. When a psychic illness infects Division 3 HQ, it’s up to David to travel inside the minds of his teammates to rescue them. It’s a trippy, disorienting adventure that brings to mind some of the stranger moments of “Twin Peaks” and the “International Assassin” episode of “The Leftovers.”
For all its headiness, “Legion” still manages to be funny. This is largely due to a great, game ensemble cast. In addition to Stevens, Plaza and Clement, the series also features standout performances from Rachel Keller’s mind-swapping mutant Syd and Jean Smart’s stoic, weary Dr. Bird.
There’s also the duo of Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder’s Carry and Kerry, siblings of sorts who share the same body. Irwin, in particular, provides solid comic relief in the role of the twitchy scientist tinkering away in his lab.
Those looking for connections to the greater X-Men cinematic universe best not hold their breath. Don’t expect any Prof. X or Wolverine cameos. Fortunately, “Legion” doesn’t need to rely on stunt casting. Hawley has created something unique that is better on its own without being tied up in extended universe continuity.
While “Legion” isn’t for everyone, non-comic book fans shouldn’t write this one off. This series is a cut far, far above “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “The Flash,” and even “Jessica Jones.” If complex, visually dynamic storytelling is your thing, “Legion” has something for you.