Spoilers lie within for the episode. Don't complain to us if your brain explodes after reading...
These days, we largely know what to expect from superhero stories on television. There are the mission-of-the-week (with larger arcs embedded) on series, such as Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the DC TV offerings. Then there are the moodier, more expensive-looking and slightly more character based variants produced by Marvel and Netflix featuring Defenders characters like Daredevil and Jessica Jones. But Legion, hailing from Fargo creator Noah Hawley is something quite different. And, while we are fans of many of the other shows, the change is tone and style here is refreshing.
Taking a lesser-known character created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz in 1985, Hawley has crafted his trip into the X-Men universe as quite literally a trip – a head-spinning, perception-altering and at times downright confusing whirl of practical effects, digital trickery and switching styles. Aspect ratios shift, kitchen cupboards explode with brute psychokinetic force and time is played with in the same way a cat plays with a mouse. The style is so distinctive and unique right from the off, that you're swept along with a mixture of well-chosen songs and brittle, changeable score by composer Jeff Russo.
Yet all that would be for nothing if you weren't also interested in and rooting for the characters. Fortunately, Hawley has not let the visual freedom – think the love child of Wes Anderson and David Fincher – overpower his knack for creating memorable characters. While the pilot doesn't explore David's background beyond seeing his happy childhood curdle into rebellious, tortured adolescence as his powers manifest and the presence of his sister Amy, played by Katie Aselton, the Legion aspects of his character – you can find a proper briefing about his background here) – we're quickly introduced to his struggle and his dark, dry wit. Empire spirit animal Dan Stevens, showcasing a mix of the charm that won him fans on Downton Abbey and the murkier levels of morality he could portray in The Guest is great from the off as David Haller, by turns vulnerable and seeking answers and controlling while being out of control himself. We meet him as a resident of Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, where he mostly hangs around with Lenny (Aubrey Plaza, all anarchic glee and grooving to her personal mix tape), but then meets the beautiful, alluring, mysterious and painfully shy Syd (Rachel Keller), who hates to be touched, but forms a sweet romance with our main man (there's a great moment where a group therapy session is hijacked into an unusual meet cute). Until she's discharged, and a snatched kiss shows that everything David has believed up to this point might well be wrong. Could his demons (one a seeming actual devil, a weird blobby bloke with yellow eyes) be signs of something else? Powers, perhaps? Such suspicions are confirmed when more than one group attempts to track David down: one seemingly nefarious, all black-clad troops and unusual investigators, the other led by Jean Smart's Melanie Bird (which include Syd) apparently looking out for Haller's best interests.
All the characters, down to smaller roles such as Mackenzie Grey's weird, mute (for now) guard/thug/woodcarver known only as The Eye are beautifully sketched with no overloaded exposition. And far from being an overwrought examination of David's true nature, it's witty, finding time for sly, dry humour and the occasional big laugh (Aubrey Plaza again).
Of course, launch episodes can afford to be showy and explosive (though Legion largely keeps its "psyrotechnics" and other mutant powers to specific uses, indulging in only one sequence that might appear in another show or movie) and the real burden will come when it must start offering up answers to the questions raised. Can this level of creativity and sheer visual whizz be maintained? We certainly hope so, and we're looking forward to wherever Hawley takes us. Rarely has a show been so confident in itself and its look (check out that mind-itching blend of 1960s/1970s fashions and architecture with just the slightest hint of more modern tech) right from the off that it earns praise and a lot of chances to prove its mettle from here. You may not grasp everything that is going on immediately, but for a hallucinatory experience more akin to moments from Doctor Strange than anything in the X-movies, it's a trip well worth embarking on.
What the hell is the devil with the yellow eyes all about?
No idea, but he clearly has a connection to David. Could he turn out to not be as threatening as he seems?
Do I need to know the movies to get this?
Absolutely not. This is a wholly original story that just so happens to take place in the mutant universe. But, like Fargo, a little experience with its roots adds extra layers of fun.
David's father in the comics is Charles Xavier. Any hint here?
Nothing yet, and the time period would suggest little crossover with the movies. But we're not ruling anything out.
Legion airs on FX in the US on Wednesdays and Fox TV in the UK on Thursdays.