Arts & Entertainment, Features

REVIEW: FX’s new TV series “Legion” addresses mental illness without going overboard

Dan Stevens stars as David Haller in the new FX show, “Legion.” PHOTO COURTESY FX
Dan Stevens stars as David Haller in the new FX show, “Legion.” PHOTO COURTESY FX

Marvel and Fox team up once again to begin a new story outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with FX’s television show “Legion,” which premiered on Wednesday. The show began by introducing us to the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a mutant who, at the onset of the series, does not know the extent of his powers, and is living in a mental health facility.

In general, the show doesn’t present itself as too deep for most people to enjoy, and any complicated, confusing scenes either resolve themselves quickly or with a little thought.

The episode is also a long, convoluted introduction to the development of one of Haller’s powers. As in the comics, he absorbs some of his “personalities” through contact with other people, which control a different power individually. In the comics, one of the first was a terrorist leader who killed his mother. In the show, it is a young woman who was also a patient at the same mental hospital as him.

One commonality between psychological thriller shows, or ones with characters who suffer from mental health problems, is an oversimplification of their problems, treating the condition as a “superpower.” David’s schizophrenia is as much a part of him as his mutant powers and the two are intertwined.

Syd (Rachel Keller), another patient at the hospital with David whom she falls in love with, enters one of his therapy sessions and asks him, “What if the problems aren’t in your head?” and that his condition may just be something “told” to him, a subjective reality rather than an objective truth.

When the episode reveals that one character was potentially part of David’s imagination, the rest of his reality is brought into question. The balance of reality and visions is a constant theme throughout the episode, flashing between what might be visions, to reality, back to visions again.

To understand the rest of the objective universe, David is treated with medication and we see doctors and assorted men in suits debate about whether his perceived mental illness is real, or just part of his mutant powers.

This men-in-suits trope, also common in Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” is portrayed not from an inquisitive civilian but from a mental health patient, an interesting point-of-view considering the potential gas-lighting and manipulation they can (and in David’s case, do) experience when questioning their lives.

The visuals of “Legion” are one of its highlight features. Creator Noah Hawley, who wrote the pilot episode and is also the showrunner of FX’s “Fargo,” leaves notable points of his style throughout the episode. The color palette and cinematography borrows from Wes Anderson films as well as “Fargo,” and the soundtrack is a mix of orchestral snippets and The Rolling Stones.

Aubrey Plaza is among the standouts, one of the more well-known actors of this show, which includes Dan Stevens from “Downton Abbey” as the main character. Plaza’s character is an optimistic partner-in-crime for Haller, but she is also severely underused, and her character’s development (or lack thereof) throughout the episode is a surprise considering how much advertising for the pilot was focused around her and her character.

But otherwise, “Legion” does well in portraying a mentally ill character without being over-the-top or extremely offensive. In last year’s “Suicide Squad,” some criticism of The Joker and Harley Quinn claimed that their characters presented mental illness or “being crazy” as quirky rather than as a real, difficult condition.

While there are slip-ups, notably with Syd’s awkward introduction at the beginning of the episode, the viewer experiences revelations and Haller’s traumatic episodes at almost the same pace as him. This includes his sorrows, his joy at finding a romantic interest, the little celebrations of going to his sister’s home and eating real food — but also the fears that his closest friend may be an illusion, that his family will reject him again.

On the whole, “Legion” may pare out to be an enjoyable extension of the “X-Men” series, with or without the rest of the popularized cast of characters. Haller’s story is certainly an interesting, dynamic one that Stevens carries well.

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