‘Legion’ Asks Uncomfortable Spiritual Questions

Why the new FX series is one of the smartest, most puzzling shows on TV.

BY SETH HURD TV February 16, 2017

Legion is a thrill ride that forces us to look at the difficult parts of our own world.

Shortly after Trump administration adviser KellyAnne Conway used the term “alternative facts” in a live interview, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 spiked. The novel rocketed to No. 1 on Amazon, and Penguin Press ordered a 75,000 copy reprint just two weeks ago.

It’s the second time the book has enjoyed such a bump. In 2013, the NSA document leak caused a 10,000 percent jump in sales. Regardless of your political affiliations, there’s no denying that Americans love turning to science fiction for what it does best—reflecting our own world back to us.

That can be easy to forget in the modern era where science fiction is dominated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a $10.9 billion (and counting) onslaught of interconnected films since 2008. While the franchise churns out one blockbuster after the next, the movies are pure escapist fantasy, completely detached from the world we live in. Which can make it easy to forget that the original Star Trek series brought the first interracial kiss to broadcast TV, or that the first Star Wars film was steeped in the world’s collective memory of the fear of Nazi Germany in WWII.

Legion (Wednesdays on FX) is not like any other comic-based project we’ve seen this decade. Not just because it’s neither glossy and sanitized (like the MCU films, heavy on action and minimal on gore) nor gritty Noir (Daredevil, Jessica Jones), but because it seems to be trying to reflect our world back to us.

The Snowden Effect

Not that it’s set in our world, exactly. The story unfolds in a bright, pop-art based version of the late 1960s or early 1970s. Within the first few minutes of the pilot, it becomes clear that the narrative will deal heavily with government surveillance.

Legion may be set 40 years too early for the NSA to record the entire population’s cell phone records, but the sentiment feels eerily similar. A government agency engages spying in order to identify potential threats and control or kill them before they come into their powers.

Like 1984, this is sci-fi doing its best work, telling a thrilling story while pushing us to think about our own reality in a new way. As C.S. Lewis famously put it, fiction “steals past the watchful dragons” in our lives.

A good story on the big (or small) screen can challenge our perceptions about current events in a way that no political pundit yelling on cable TV ever could.

Exposing the stigma of mental illness

Set within the X-Men Universe, Legion is a radical departure in almost every way from the X-Men we’ve seen on screen so far. The story focuses on David Haller (Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey), a man diagnosed with schizophrenia, who has spent most of his life in and out of mental hospitals.

From the opening scene, it’s easy to empathize with Haller, unjustly locked up and improperly medicated because the authorities believe his mutant powers are in fact schizophrenia. Given that Americans’ collective attitudes on what causes are worthy seem to be driven by what we see on TV, it’s good this topic is coming to the forefront of pop culture.

Fighting for mental illness awareness is just never going to be that cool, but it’s a continual issue in modern society. In 1963, JFK signed the Community Mental Health Act, to fund community-based preventive care and treatment facilities. He died before the program was ever put in place, and by the 1980s the majority of residential treatment centers for mental illness had closed due to budget cuts.

My late grandfather ran one of these facilities in Peoria, Illinois. When the lack of state funding shut the program down for good, patients who were not picked up by family or friends were literally forced out into the cold, increasing the homeless population. 

While there are plenty of mental health help movements out there, recent psychological studies show that seeing a character struggle on the page creates new pathways of empathy in the brain. It’s not much of a jump to assume the same thing can happen on the small screen. Watching Legion, the viewer feels for Haller, wondering how horrifying it must be to be imprisoned and force-fed a barrage of anti-psychotic drugs each day.

While nonprofits like To Write Love on Her Arms and Hope for the Day are doing real, measurable good in the area of mental health, there’s just something about being at the center of pop culture that turns an issue like mental illness from something we would rather avoid in polite conversation to something that demands to be discussed.

‘The X-Files’ Meets ‘Atlanta’

Just because Legion deals with heavy themes doesn’t mean it’s drab. To the contrary, it manages to walk a razor wire to be one of the smartest and most enthralling new shows this year. Helmed by Noah Hawley, the mind behind the surprise TV hit Fargo, the tone of the show owes as much to The X-Files as it does to comic books.

It’s largely forgotten that in an era where TV shows told episodic stories (think Law & Order, where each episode is self contained and disconnected from a larger narrative), The X-Files burst onto the scene in 1993 with serialized storytelling, paving the way for everything from Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead.

The X-Files was also visually groundbreaking, an influence that Legion embraces with gusto. The pilot uses visual effects generously, both for thrills and as storytelling elements, a style which is complimented by a jittery score that feels a lot like Junkie XL’s soundtrack for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (great music for a very average movie).

If you caught the first season of Donald Glover’s brilliant Atlanta, you know that FX has gone from a rerun network to a media outlet taking huge creative risks. It’s not clear whether Atlanta, which tackles everything from celebrity obsession to drug laws, should be categorized as a comedy or drama. The bet paid off, with Atlanta debuting with the highest ratings for any basic cable premiere in three years.

Similarly, Legion is like nothing we’ve seen before. At its heart, it’s an old school whodunnit, with a heavy shot of psychological thriller to top it all off. And, lest you think it’s an hourlong think piece, yes, there’s action. Boatloads of it, and presented in a way that doesn’t feel quite like anything we’ve seen in TV or movies so far.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t the least bit enthused about this show. In a TV world crowded with Gotham, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil and a dozen other comic-based shows, I had no idea why anyone would want to tune into one more.

The answer is because Legion is one of the smartest, most puzzling and most fun stories on TV. It follows in the footsteps of the very best of the science fiction genre in forcing us to ask uncomfortable questions about the world we live in.

SETH HURD