Legion Review: An Exhilarating Delight, Even if You Don't Like Comic Books

grade_AI know what you’re thinking: Another comic-book show? From The CW’s crowded superhero stable to Netflix’s Daredevil/Jessica Jones/Luke Cage trio, it seems like every other TV drama these days springs from the panels of a comic book. And yet, thankfully, there’s still room for a fresh voice in there, because FX’s Legion is not just “another comic-book show.” Visually inventive and emotionally astute, it bursts out of the gate with the most exhilarating TV pilot I’ve seen since Mr. Robot.

The bulk of the credit for Legion — debuting Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 10/9c — goes to creator Noah Hawley, who proved he can revitalize a franchise with FX’s Fargo. As he did there, Hawley uses the original Legion comic books not as a strict blueprint, but as a jumping-off point to create his own universe — one splashed with light, sound and color. Legion not only doesn’t look like any other superhero show; it doesn’t look like anything else on TV. And that’s a good thing.

The story centers on David Haller (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens), a troubled young man trapped in a bleak mental institution. We learn through flashbacks that he had a rough upbringing spiked with violent outbursts, and has now been placed on a numbing pill regimen. But the arrival of a new patient named Syd (Fargo‘s Rachel Keller) awakens something in him, and he starts to realize that all of his psychological problems might just be his extraordinary abilities fighting to get out.

Legion FX Series Premiere Rachel Keller SydAs we learn, David is a mutant with massive telepathic and telekinetic powers; one observer calls him “the most powerful mutant we’ve ever encountered.” (In the original Marvel comics, David is the son of Professor X, of X-Men fame.) The government fears the damage that his powers could inflict, and looks to “kill him now, before he knows what he is.” But David manages to connect with a team of allies who can help him unlock his potential.

There’s some incredible CGI on display here, including a stunningly elaborate battle scene at the very end of the pilot. But most of Legion‘s eye-candy comes from the gorgeous cinematography and set design, filmed by Hawley with a precision reminiscent of Kubrick and Wes Anderson. Legion‘s pilot is bathed in bold primary colors and filled with inspired song choices like the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” and the Who’s “Happy Jack.” It may be too stylized for some, but for those on its particular wavelength (like me), it’s an absolute tour de force.

legion-best-new-winter-showsDavid and Syd’s romance is essential to the story; it gives us something tangible to lean on amid all the mutant weirdness. Their unique courtship, with her not wanting to be touched and him respectfully keeping his distance, is oddly charming. (She agrees to hold a piece of fabric he’s holding so they can “hold hands.”) And Stevens’ performance helps give the show some emotional heft, as David battles with his inner demons. The supporting cast is loaded, too: Aubrey Plaza is wonderfully mischievous as David’s nutso pal Lenny, and Mackenzie Grey is an instant-classic villain as “The Eye,” a silent henchman with a glass eye and a Phil Spector perm who ominously whittles in the background.

Admittedly, Legion‘s plot gets a bit confusing at times, with “memory glitches,” body switches and random time jumps. But it helps that David is just as confused as we are; he acts as our surrogate, and we figure out how this strange new world works along with him. And after the relentless flash and pizzazz of the pilot, Episode 2 gives us a much-needed chance to catch our breath and learn more about David’s backstory, so we can prepare for the wonders that lie ahead.

Comic-book fans might be eager for Legion to hurry up and get to “the good stuff,” connecting David to the X-Men universe they know and love. But I’m not in any hurry. Speaking as someone with next-to-zero knowledge of comic books, this is the first superhero show I’ll be adding to my DVR’s season-pass list. Legion has created a compelling world that firmly stands on its own… and I look forward to Hawley and the cast dazzling me even more in the weeks to come.

THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: With breathtaking visual flair and a charming central romance, Legion quickly races to the top of TV’s comic-book class.