“Legion” • Three and a half stars out of four • 9 p.m. Wednesday on FX • fxnetworks.com/legion
Fans of “Fargo” just wanted Noah Hawley, who so brilliantly channeled the Coen brothers in adapting (but not exactly adapting) their quirky dark drama for television, to get back to work on Season 3.
First, though, Hawley tackled another adaptation, this one inspired by a Marvel Comics character with ties to the “X-Men” franchise.
Don’t worry if you don’t know much about that. “Legion” stands solidly as its own thing, although what that thing is doesn’t immediately take shape.
Dan Stevens, almost unrecognizable as Matthew Crawley from “Downton Abbey,” stars as David Haller, whom we meet in a trippy opening montage as a cheerful child who grows into a disturbed and disturbing young man.
After a suicide attempt, David is committed to a mental hospital, where he is analyzed and medicated. He’s befriended by a fellow patient, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation”), and falls for a newcomer, Sydney (Rachel Keller), who believes that insanity may actually be genius and that there’s a chance that David’s “problems aren’t in your head.”
“Legion” is nowhere nearly this straight-line in its telling, and the setup as described is a tiny fraction of the story, which also jumps around in time en route to the pivotal twist that will set up the real plot.
Even if you barely understand a thing that’s going on (and be patient; chances are you will), “Legion” is a joy to watch, surreal and beautiful, with as many funny asides as frightening moments.
Especially, if you’re not an aficionado of comic-inspired entertainment, don’t worry that “Legion” was born as a Marvel character with ties to the “X-Men” franchise. That doesn’t matter at the outset, and if it does later (three episodes were made available for preview), you’ll have plenty of warm-up time.
Hawley himself was attracted to “Legion” not because it was part of the comic genre but almost in spite of that, he told TV critics last month in Los Angeles.
“The first thought I had was, well, if we remove the genre, is there a compelling show that you would want to watch there? Because I think that the underlying show, whatever the genre is, has to be a compelling character or story.”
He seized on the character of David, he said, “and then introducing (Sydney) and the idea of this epic love story.”
Diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, hearing voices, David (and by extension viewers) is “not sure what’s real and what’s not real,” Hawley said.
That makes the whole tone and shape of “Legion” subjective, as opposed to “Fargo,” which is objective, Hawley said.
“Even the way we shoot (‘Fargo’) it is meant to sort of say, this is a true story,” he said.
With “Legion,” the idea “is to try to create something subjective where at every moment you are experiencing what he’s experiencing.”
To that end, “Legion” isn’t set in the present; music and colors suggest the initial action takes place in the 1970s.
“His perception of reality is that some of it feels retro, and some of it feels futuristic,” Hawley said. “I thought it’s important to make something unique.”
Unique “Legion” is.
At one point in the unsettling, mesmerizing pilot, which Hawley took 21 days (nearly three times as long as a regular episode) to direct, the story turns upside-down, setting David off in a whole new direction. Viewers should prepare to hang on for the ride.
Marvel, which began publishing comics in 1939 and has become an entertainment powerhouse, “doesn’t ever start out from a place which is, OK, this is a person who is defined by their powers,” Jeph Loeb of Marvel Television said on the panel with Hawley. “We start out from a place of, this is a story about what is happening to David and in that world.”
Hawley got Marvel quickly on board when he “came in and started talking about the nature of mental health and the nature of perception of people,” Loeb said. “The best Marvel stories are the ones that take issues that are out there in the real world and put them through a prism, and then they come out through someone who is a storyteller, that’s what’s exciting to us.”
Loeb doesn’t think the genre and “X-Men” tie will necessarily draw viewers to “Legion.” “We think people are going to come to the show because Noah Hawley and this incredible cast and the incredible writing and FX have merged together to tell a kind of show that Marvel has never made before.”