Legion and the Golden Age of Bat-Shit Crazy TV

(Episode 2.01)

TV Features Legion
Legion and the Golden Age of Bat-Shit Crazy TV

The last few years have seen, if not the creation of the bat-shit crazy fantasy, at least its blossoming. Shows like Preacher, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Happy! are all packed with the weird, the impossible and the insane, each seemingly trying to outdo the others. Each character is more outlandish than the next: an Irish vampire, a holistic assassin, an imaginary flying unicorn voiced by Patton Oswalt. It’s no coincidence that these shows originated either from comic books or the wonderful twisted mind of novelist Douglas Adams. But the champion of bat-shit crazy TV is FX’s Legion, whose characters, both real and imagined, meet in an actual ward for the insane.

The first season of Legion proved that Marvel was willing to experiment with a very different kind of superhero show from their movie, ABC and even Netflix formulas. The show, created by Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, follows a mutant named David Haller (Dan Stevens) who has spent six years in a mental hospital following a suicide attempt. He has tremendous powers, but he’s not even sure they’re real. As the season progressed, the struggle was as much for control of his own mind as it was against the violent government agency Division III or the Shadow King, who took various forms, from the World’s Angriest Boy in the World to David’s dead friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). It included an adorable romance with fellow patient Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) and a bizarre cast of mutants like Kerry and Cary Loudermilk, who inhabit a single body. The season ended with David kidnapped by a strange electronic drone, and Season Two begins a year later, though David’s last memory is the kidnapping.

Much has changed in that time. The Shadow King, a 300-year-old mutant named Amahl Farouk (mostly played by Aubrey Plaza as Lenny), has possessed the body of David’s friend Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement). “Chapter 9” opens with Plaza and Clement laying on rafts in a suburban backyard pool. But that’s just a thought within an idea within a dream. “Welcome to madness,” narrator Jon Hamm intones after some nonsense about a maze.

Bird/Farouk is searching the world for his body. And everywhere he goes, a mental infection causes masses to freeze like statues except for a creepy chattering of teeth. David has been rescued and finds that all his friends work for the shadowy Division III that was hunting them down in Season One. It’s headed by a guy wearing a basket on his head who communicates through a trio of mustachioed Auto-Tuned mechanical women. The security forces are made up of children. And the cafeteria has a little river of dishes floating around like a conveyer belt. Like all good bat-shit crazy TV shows, every scene feels like a riff on the dream sequences from Twin Peaks.

Hawley, whose Fargo series is also carefully stylized, takes advantage of the freedom provided by a comic-book fantasy world to follow every bizarre idea to its most surreal conclusion. The plot twists like an Escher painting, and the characters—isolated by the strangeness of their powers—struggle with normal conversation and relationships. Syd temporarily trades bodies with anyone she touches. And David can’t ever seem to trust his own memories.

It’s that weakness that we see in the Season Two opener. He’s hiding something about his year away from Syd, and at the end of the episode we see that he believes that a future version of Syd was behind the abduction, telling David to help the Shadow King find his body. But David’s memories have long proven to be an unreliable narrator to both David and the audience.

It’s a strong return for one of the most imaginative shows on television. Scenes like the Shadow King planting a delusion in David’s mind—illustrated with Aubrey Plaza killing a baby chick so that a black, slimy mutated version of the chick can thrive—or Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) tripping and envisioning a crippled horse-faced man are possibly more fantastical than most moments in Season One. And that’s where the joys of Legion lie: offering something strange and wonderful and new in a world full of gritty, grounded drama.

It’s work to follow the convoluted plots and it takes an openness to the most outré imaginings. But the rewards of this beautiful, original, clever, funny, well-written and well-acted show are, well, legion. I’m thankful for a new mystery and the myriad of WTF moments to come. Long live bat-shit crazy television.

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