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Is ‘Legion’ As Experimental As It Purports to Be?

FX’s psychedelic Marvel series aims to avoid traditional television tropes, but in Season 2 it has so far failed to deliver a revolutionary viewing experience

Still of David Haller in ‘Legion’ Season 2 FX

The Season 2 premiere of Legion, FX’s psychedelic Marvel series, doubled down on what the show does best: beguiling the senses with eye-popping visuals and utterly creepy, nightmarish sounds. There was Jon Hamm (!) doing voice-over work in interludes that described concepts like delusion and insanity with the aid of a deformed, insect-like hatchling and a man who cut off his own leg after being convinced it no longer belonged to him (a delusion!). That creepy hatchling? Aubrey Plaza showed up and gave it a smooch.

GIF of Aubrey Plaza kissing a hatchling in ‘Legion’ FX

Later in the premiere, mutant protagonist David Haller (Dan Stevens) received a prophetic warning from a future version of his girlfriend, Syd (Rachel Keller), who appeared to be missing an arm, waved a wand like Harry Potter, and wore a quasi-apocalyptic outfit fresh off the set of CW’s The 100. She couldn’t speak, for reasons unclear, so she used the wand to play a particularly strange game of Pictionary.

GIF of Rachel Keller waving a wand to draw an hourglass in ‘Legion’ FX

The best moment, perhaps of the entire series thus far, came when David faced off with the Shadow King—a mutant parasite that lived inside David’s mind in Season 1—through Lenny (Plaza) and Oliver (Jemaine Clement), two characters under the Shadow King’s control. The setting resembled a nondescript nightclub, but it was a mental projection for two all-powerful psychic mutants to display their powers. And why not convey that showdown with a dance-off?

When Legion arrived last year, the reviews were favorable: It was a superhero prestige play that presented a dizzying depiction of mental illness and the (sometimes literal) demons that can inhabit people. And things could get very weird—like, Jemaine Clement living inside a block of ice in the astral plane and wearing an old-timey diving suit kind of weird. The psychedelia was earned, however, through its initial premise: It wasn’t clear if David had paranoid schizophrenia, superpowers, or both, and he was our tripped-out, unreliable narrator through a cornucopia of visual flourishes.

While creators are expected to oversell their shows, and reinvention is the perennial promise of Peak TV, showrunner Noah Hawley said the goal with Legion’s second season was to transcend the medium once again. “Not experimental in an art-house sense—ambiguous, hard to understand—but experimental in ways we haven’t considered yet,” he wrote to critics in early December. Director Ana Lily Amirpour, who directed the second episode of the new season, told IndieWire that she doesn’t believe “you can really call Legion TV.” “I feel like it’s an experience,” she added. “It’s about exploring sanity and madness and perception.”

Three episodes in, I’m beginning to wonder if Legion is as experimental as it might seem. At the center of the Season 2 premiere are two conventional narrative threads for the series to unweave. The new goal for David and the other protagonists—now working for amorphous government agency Division 3—is to find the corpse of the Shadow King before the villain can reenter his body, lest he become even more powerful than before. At the same time, it’s evident that David is hiding secrets from everyone, including Syd, and might be inching closer to the Legion character of the Marvel comics (read: a supervillain). A race against time and an origin story? It’s familiar territory, to say the least.

The grandiosity of the visuals is undercut by the simplicity of Legion’s narrative. The series follows basic tenets of storytelling at a stagnant pace; you can usually summarize the events of an episode within a couple of sentences. The second episode of Season 2, for instance: David makes a deal with the Shadow King to find his body and save the future that Future Syd warns him about. A mysterious monk who knows the location of the body escapes from Division 3. (This episode is more than 50 minutes long.)

And while the Hamm-narrated interludes are original, they convey ham-fisted ideas that serve only to reemphasize Legion’s overarching themes. The third episode, which premiered Tuesday, opens with Hamm describing conversion disorder using an example of a high school cheerleading squad slowly being “infected” by uncontrollable twitches in their right shoulders. We’re then thrust back into Division 3, where anyone who’s in the vicinity of the aforementioned monk will become paralyzed, except for their teeth chattering (it’s pretty creepy). The through line is intended to be the monk’s psychic power bearing similar effects to conversion disorder, but not only is that connection tenuous at best (a mutant power and a mental disorder are two very different things), it’s also an unnecessary explainer. The impression is a show that holds no confidence its audience can follow it along without careful supervision.

This narrative hand-holding might make the show easier to swallow for the viewer, but it serves to undermine the series’ characters. The monk paralyzes some of David’s friends in the third episode, and David has to enter their minds in order to rescue them. The landscapes of their minds are stunning—Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) has a lush garden in the shape of a brain—but the resolution for these obstacles is David summarizing each character’s core desires with a generic koan. Ptonomy’s mutant power is being able to remember everything, so he envisions a lush garden where he forgets what’s happening every three seconds like a goldfish, while Melanie (Jean Smart) wants to be omnipotent because she feels helpless. That the show reduces these characters to one defining trait—and that it checks out for them—speaks to how poorly they’ve been developed. All the glamour that Legion prioritizes has turned the people in its story into one-dimensional ciphers.

Ironically, the only character who seems fleshed out in Legion is the Shadow King—and there might not be enough of the villain to go around. In addition to Plaza’s Lenny and Clement’s Oliver under the Shadow King’s control, Homeland actor Navid Negahban is introduced as the villain’s true physical form. These are three great, scene-stealing actors with not enough screen time between them; also, this is supposed to be David Haller’s show. Now, instead of a Marvel property struggling to create a convincing villain, which had been the norm prior to Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger, it’s struggling to produce anything outside of one.

As far as superhero TV shows go, Legion is on a trippy pedestal of its own creation.

But Legion has never quite lived up to expectations, either formally or in terms of audience payoff. While the show willingly obfuscates many traditional television tropes, it so far fails to deliver a viewing experience to replace them. There’s still plenty of time for the show to improve, with seven episodes remaining this season, but the fourth installment—a flashback episode, one of TV’s most familiar staples—doesn’t inspire much confidence. Legion might insist it’s a hallucinogenic experience, a television experiment that’s never been done before, but until the show defies conventions and isn’t afraid to throw its audience into the deep end along with them, the series will continue to feel like a missed opportunity.