'Legion' debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on FX
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"Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" That's not just a Queen lyric anymore. That's the current epistemological panic of a reality blur age that has us sweating manipulation, detachment and cynicism. While these concerns about how we know what we know roil us, they have made for fantastic television. Mr. Robot. Westworld. Black Mirror. And now, there's FX's Legion, a portrait of a damaged young man who can't trust his experience of himself, other people, and the world. It's technically a comic book show — an edgy expansion of the X-Men universe; a more cerebral, infinitely weirder Deadpool, sans costumes and raunch. But this new series from Fargo mastermind Noah Hawley transcends the genre to be a trippy, witty, scary entertainment, marked by audacious storytelling that potently expresses the overwhelming psychic riot of our uncanny, bewildering times.

Sooner or later, Legion may get around to behaving like a superhero show. But what I see in Legion, first and foremost, is a fanciful and risky portrait of mental illness, one that takes madness seriously while working it for many metaphors. David Haller (Dan Stevens, a million miles from Downton Abbey) is a schizophrenic whose psyche is a stir of echoes and voices and confabulated memories. A jaundiced, corpulent monster lurks in the corner of his mind's eye. A picture book about the world's angriest boy haunts him. A Nazi puppet bedevils him. His waking life is a non-stop lucid nightmare, and he's come to accept it with a shruggy indifference.

We meet him om his birthday, locked up inside Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, which may or may not be one of those pop culture asylums that doubles as an allegorical critique of society. It's part panopticon, part Kubrickian space station, a sterile, mediated, comfortably numb environment, divorced from nature yet decorated with reminders of it. Within a patch of green space, an inmate hides within the foliage. I'm obsessed with this man. Is Clockworks dedicated to mental rehabilitation or is it part of a vast conspiracy of social control? We are meant to wonder. David's best friend is Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), a Twizzler-chomping, Beats-wearing, constantly quipping nihilist who exudes nasty sass and delights in mania. His love interest is Syd (Rachel Keller), a woman of mystery who can't stand to be touched. They hold hands via a length of cloth, they kiss without making contact via window reflections. (Romance on TV hasn't been this fraught since Pushing Daisies.) She entrances David with her innocence and beauty and she hooks him further with a dangerous pitch. What if they aren't mentally ill? What if insanity is individuality no one understands?

Credit: Chris Large/FX

Things get strange from here, but eventually, Legion reveals itself. Kinda. David, we're told, isn't nuts; he's a next-gen human blessed/cursed with a bonanza of psychic talents that he doesn't understand. The voices in head? They are literally voices in his head, as he's been telepathically piping the thoughts of everyone around him. (The show's title flicks at David's misdiagnosis. It comes from a Bible story about a demon-possessed man dubbed "Legion" who contained a multitude of spirit… unless, of course, he was just mentally ill.) While a government agency hunts David, the seemingly benevolent leader (Jean Smart) of a mutant liberation group who sees David as a messianic chosen one helps him get mentally clear and master his abilities. That's a classic superhero-story premise — and classic paranoid delusion. In this way, Hawley uses genre conventions to dramatize schizophrenia. Is he also using mental illness to cast shade on the craziness of superhero escapism? Legion is derived from the X-Men universe, once a socially conscious allegory about Otherness, persecution, and inclusion, a saga of misfits finding community and realizing their unique identity while battling haters who wish them oppressed (or dead), and protecting everyone from the worst of mutantkind. Now, too often, it's just another gonzo fantasy about privileged special people and individualism run amuck burdened with with convoluted mythology and dependent on apocalyptic sci-fi premises. Hawley plays to other pop narratives, as well, like the dubious practice of romanticizing madness in hero-artists, especially those of the counter-culture stripe. Syd's full name is Syd Barrett, as in Syd Barrett, the founder of Pink Floyd, a troubled genius who left the band shortly after its creation.

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Smart's Melanie Bird and her team of oddball outsiders are ciphers in the early going, and they slowly gain individual dimension while remaining masked with ambiguity. There's a scene in episode 3 in which Bird has a melancholy exchange with a talking coffee machine that volunteers cryptic parables (you might recognize the voice; I won't spoil it), and Smart rocks it, selling the absurd humor and capturing your imagination for her character. I'm not convinced Bird is everything she says she is or the best representative for the mutant cause.* Her secret sanctuary in the woods, Summerland, presents as a school for gifted youngsters (classes include "advanced time travel," according to a voice on the P.A. system), but it's also a mirror twin to Clockworks. Which one is the true house of healing? Bird promises enlightenment and empowerment, but Hawley imbues Summerland a whiff of cultishness that invites doubt. The song we hear as David arrives at this alleged idyll: a serene cover of Talking Heads' "Road To Nowhere." Is David's adventure into the unknown a hero's journey or a descent into deeper madness?

*Legion's approach to borrowing from X-Men lore remains unclear after three episodes. To my eyes, Hawley seems to be abstracting characters and elements. Syd evokes Rogue. Bird presents as the equivalent of Charles Xavier, but she could easily turn out to be someone like Magneto. The government agent hunting David known as The Eye could be Legion's version of a Sentinel… unless he's the show's version of Cyclops?

Shows that provoke you to question their reality can discourage investment, and even the best ones have a half-life to them. It's entirely possible that Legion will grow frustrating over time. For now, I'm all in. I'm captivated by the psychological mystery, I'm touched by David and Syd's poignant intimacies. Stevens grounds the live-wire weirdness and warms the chilly geekery with a emotionally open and funny performance that blends boyishness and irreverence. He roams the extremes of David without overplaying any of them, by slightly underplaying them, actually, a choice that works. His chemistry with Plaza and Keller is winning. And the madcap and idiosyncratic storytelling from scene to scene makes each moment thrilling. Every image, every sound works together to plug us into David's subjective, distorted, temporally-confused experience of everything — bold colors, retro-mod fashions, throwback musical choices, vertiginous camera moves, wild and tender feels, flashbacks within flashbacks of confabulated memories. The aesthetic cribs Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, and Stanley Kubrick, but the show's original source material might be the most instructive. David Haller/Legion was introduced in an X-Men spin-off called The New Mutants in 1985, during a period in which the comic was drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz, who brought an expressionistic formal daring to the page that was jolting, challenging, and exciting. For those who only know superhero fantasy from movies and TV, Legion might hit you the same way those Sienkiewicz comics hit New Mutants fans; it's a radical shift from the norm, a clear attempt to move a genre forward and stretch beyond itself. "Something new needs to happen!" David says early in the story — a line that functions as Legion's artistic mission statement.

Hawley directs the pilot with extraordinary invention and a gutsy trust in his audience to just roll with stuff, from the abundance of recurring motifs that don't get explained ASAP (like a key moment from David's recent past, in which he trashes a kitchen with telekinesis, causing cutlery and foodstuffs to swirl around him) to high-concept scenarios that are played out before they're spelled out, like a plot point involving consciousness transfer. But much like high-grade Mr. Robot, Hawley always inspires confidence and knows how to make the WTF? freaky fun. The opening sequence sucks you into David's head with a bravura montage in which we track David from infancy to adulthood, going from healthy, rambunctious kid to disturbed, self-destructive young man. Hawley sets this biographical sketch of dawning psychotic break to The Who's "Happy Jack," but he also gradually fills the soundtrack with ambient background conversations that accumulate into a cacophony of needling, crazy-making whispers. (I see something else in this intro, too: a profile of arrested adolescence gone explosively bad — a rather subversive theme to be selling to comic book pop fans. Are you telling me it's time to put childish things down and grow up, Legion?) There's a single-take, intricately choreographed action sequence at the end that's one seriously hellzapoppin' thing, but if you want conventional superhero conflict and violence from Legion, modify your expectations. The second and third episodes — directed by the great Michael Uppendahl, who carries Hawley's flair forward with ease — slow the pace and explore David's psychic landscape and past, canvassing and re-canvassing key events, digging deeper each time; the initial storyline seems to be spiraling toward some suppressed memory apocalypse. The protracted setup primes the pump for more explosive drama to come, but whatever happens next, I hope the show never loses its filmmaking nerve or character focus, a study of a fractured soul struggling to pull himself together and see through the fictions of himself and the world. An electroshock of striking originality, Legion seizes your imagination by blowing your mind and captures the high anxiety of reality-blur America. A-

Legion debuts Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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