If orange is the new black, then February is the new September. Forget Fall premieres: Winter premieres are where most of the heavy hitters now reside. There’s a metric ton of shows either premiering or returning, and I’ll be reviewing some in this space each week. For now, let’s look at two of the more highly-anticipated ones. Does FX’s Legion re-invent the Marvel small-screen universe? Does FOX’s 24: Legacy live up to its predecessor?
Read on and find out.
FX’s Legion, which debuts February 8th, is such a departure from everything else that Marvel has put on the small screen to date that it’s worth celebrating just for being unique. It doesn’t try to tie into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it doesn’t look visually flat, and it has no desire to adhere to the normal narrative patterns of a serialized television show. These are all wonderful qualities, which suggests that Marvel may finally realize there’s more than one way to bring its huge roster of characters into our living rooms.
But at least through the first three episodes made for review, there’s much more to admire than love. Is that due to the relatively obscure Marvel character at the center of this show? Not at all. That’s an excuse rather than a reason. Indeed, Dan Stevens goes a long way towards selling titular protagonist David Haller as a flesh-and-blood person rather than the potentially most-powerful mutant in the world. Nothing about Haller’s anonymity when compared to characters like Wolverine and Cyclops has anything to do with the short’s early (and honestly, minor) shortcomings.
If there’s a show that comes to mind during these episodes, it’s Hannibal. But while both shows use the visual iconography of dreams to frame each episode, Legion tends to be percussive while Hannibal stayed hypnotic. Both have signature rhythms, but those in Legion are intentionally designed to keep audiences on their toes rather than lull them into a sense of true displacement.
Now, that’s a conscious choice on behalf of creator Noah Hawley and the phenomenal production team that put together Legion. Other shows should probably stop thinking about winning Emmys for production design, editing, visual effects, and sound mixing, because this show pretty much blows everything else off the map at this point. It’s simply astounding to think what’s even possible on an episodic budget at this stage, but all the money in the world takes a backseat to the inventive ways Legion is shot, composed, framed, and then woven into a disorientating feverscape that nevertheless never completely alienates its audience. But the overall effect calls attention to itself in the moment, rather than in retrospect, which can have an unintended distancing effect while watching.
I have no problem envisioning a scenario in which such visual and aural mastery meets compelling character work. But having seen essentially a third of the first season of the show, the former overshadows the latter. The show is so busy setting up its world that it has little time to simply slow down and show two people express their hopes, fears, and desires. Haller is someone who can’t trust his own brain, and as such most of his scenes feature halting dialogue in which another figure is trying to work out what’s wrong with him. Again, this is by design: Haller can’t be fully-formed from the outset, otherwise there would be no show. Most of the early scenes with true dramatic meat on the bone come when Stevens interacts with Rachel Keller’s character Syd Barrett. Keller, so great on the second season of Fargo, proves here that performance was no fluke.
There’s a lot to like here, and I imagine this will be one of the few reviews that aren’t outright raves from the outset. This isn’t a “comic book television show” in any of the traditional senses, which demonstrates what comic book fans have known all along: There’s really no thing as a “comic book television show.” It’s a reductive way at looking at an infinitely malleable genre. Even if Legion doesn’t start off as an all-time classic show, it’s well worth watching all the same. Come the end of season one, it may have already made that leap. In the meantime, you’ll be able to watch a visually audacious show that has more on its mind that capes and tights.
Full disclosure: I’m a 24 buff. I’ve seen every episode, and endured the rollercoaster in quality than represented the show’s full run. For every amazing twist and killer setpiece, there were at least as many silly narrative detours and ill-advised moves. It’s a big, bold, messy, important, frustrating show that doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its importance in 21st-century television. Putting this in his book The Revolution Was Televised was one of the savviest things critic Alan Sepinwall did in that tome: It’s a show that’s usually overlooked but is a better reflection of both the medium and this country’s shifting politics than just about another show.
With that said, 24: Legacy (which returns in the plum post-Super Bowl slot on FOX this Sunday) is a show fueled by nostalgia rather than necessity. It’s a prime example of what I call Mad Lib TV: Simply insert a few locations, verbs, and adjectives into a pre-existing template and voila, you have new content within the same, rigid structure. You could argue that almost ALL of 24 has been Mad Lib TV, and even though I’m a huge fan I’ll admit there’s merit to that argument. There’s ALWAYS something that needs to be completed “within the hour.” There’s ALWAYS a mole inside CTU. There’s ALWAYS someone getting from point A to point B in less time than it would take to teleport there. Trust me, I’m with you.
And yet, the best seasons of this show demonstrated how iterations can alter based on small tweaks to the overall environment. 24 could (and did) offer up the best argument for and against using torture to obtain useful information. The show itself seemed to come around on its own use of this technique, and Kiefer Sutherland’s increasingly craggy face seemed to bear the accumulated weight of the decisions Jack Bauer made. He was our Sin Eater, and his final appearance in 24: Live Another Day offered up a surprisingly unheroic end for a man made to suffer so the rest of us could stay innocent.
In early episodes of 24: Legacy, the skeleton of the show is intact but the soul is absent. Corey Hawkins has something of a thankless task to fill Sutherland’s shoes here, but his character Eric Carter-an ex-Army Ranger whose missions overseas has come back to haunt him back home-is a real asset. His character hatches an absolutely ludicrous plan in episode two to solve a particular problem, but it makes sense that Carter would concoct it. That’s how well 24: Legacy and Hawkins establish this character in swift, bold strokes. What would have reeked of narrative desperation in a lesser season of the show feels like a character-specific choice that even the show realizes is symptomatic of a person that maybe enjoys danger a little too much.
If only the rest of the show lived up to that specificity. Everything else feels like bad fanfic rather than a new spin on a successful formula. Having the season only be twelve episodes reduces the need to extraneous subplots to pad out the narrative, but also means that any dull or ill-advised subplot that stays in stands out all the more for its uselessness. I audibly groaned each time certain people returned to my screen, and rubbed my temples each time I guessed the “twist” scenes before an onscreen character did. Spoiler alert: I’m horrific at guessing twists, mostly because the best shows are compelling enough that I’m living in the moment rather than trying to place bets on whodunit. 24: Legacy has many scenes in which I mentally projected myself into other, better parts of the same show. (Maybe that’s also the plot of an upcoming episode of Legion?)
Perhaps 24: Legacy isn’t so much Mad Libs TV as Member Berries TV, to borrow a concept from the latest season of South Park. It exists, not unlike the upcoming reboot of Prison Break, because it’s easier to bring back something executives know people like rather than try to impress them with new intellectual property. The same goes for film as well. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking an existing property and revitalizing it. But when you’re taking that property and Weekend At Bernie’s-ing it … well, then the corpse reveals itself as such. Because I’m a 24 completist, I’ll probably watch every episode, but I’ll be looking for signs of life beyond Hawkins’ compelling lead performance to make it more than an obligatory act.
Ryan McGee currently covers SNL for Rolling Stone. He has previously written about television for Screencrush, The AV Club, and Hitfix, among others, and co-hosts a podcast with Maureen Ryan Follow him on Twitter.