For We Are Many

It can be extraordinarily difficult to write about mental illness, in fiction and in reality.  Even now, as I write this, I select my words with care when I say that the current trend in television to try and make entertainment out of mental illness — intelligent and empathetic entertainment, that is, rather than condescending drama, exploitative action, or cheap and insulting humor — has unsheathed a sword whose two edges are uncommonly sharp.  On the one hand, it is not only praiseworthy, but also rather daring in a creative sense, that the makers of shows like BoJack HorsemanMarinLoveCrazy Ex-Girlfriend, and You’re the Worst have chosen to make art that treats people with mental illness not only as real human beings worthy of our respect and understand, but also as compelling subjects in their own right.  Much progress remains to be made, but we have left behind the era of mockery and hatred of the people with depression, bipolar disorder, autism, and similar conditions, and are now moving past the era of treating them with kid-gloves After School Special condescension and into a framework that is both more productive and more sensitive.

On the other hand, as with many other identities that are neither chosen nor universal such as race, class, and gender, it can be very difficult to portray these conditions in a way that is both correct and compelling.  The stigma of something like associative disorder has barely left us (witness the ludicrous new film Split by M. Night Shyamalan), and yet we’re still stuck with the fact that for those who haven’t experienced them firsthand, mental illness can seem alienating, frustrating, or even boring.  This is something that its victims must deal with on a daily basis, but it must be possible to admit that the art created around it can come across as didactic or poorly executed without seeming like we are trying to add to their problems.  Cyril Connolly, no stranger to anxiety and pain, noted that it is a mistake to suppose that neurotics are always interesting:  “It is not interesting to be always unhappy, engrossed with oneself, malignant and ungrateful, and never quite in touch with reality.”  We need not blame or isolate the mentally ill to admit that their behaviors must be expertly handled in art to be effective to a wide audience.

And so we arrive at Legion, a new FX series — set loosely in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and based on a character created by X-Men Chris Claremont and the brilliant artist Bill Sienkiewicz — helmed by Noah Hawley.  Its pedigree is exceptional; while the original material was hardly a work of great sensitivity to people who suffer from schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder, it was one of the last truly interesting works of the great mutant wave that nearly drowned Marvel in the late 1980s. Hawley, as the creator of the network’s superb Fargo, has a history of taking existing material and reworking it in a way that retains the tone and mood of the original while moving it in interesting and unexpected directions.  And the cast includes heavy hitters like Bill Irwin, Aubrey Plaza, and Jean Smart, who was so excellent in Fargo‘s second season.  All of this made me interested in giving the series a shot, despite my normal allergy to the current wave of comic book nonsense, and the first episode hooked me good with a spectacular opening montage set to the Who’s “Happy Jack” that looked like something Zack Snyder might have done if he was actually as talented as he thinks he is.

Unfortunately, it lost me soon after that, and it lost me hard.  Although Legion is only two hours old, and that’s an extremely limited amount of time on which to judge a television series (especially one under the direction of a known quantity like Hawley), it’s still the length of a feature film, and two hours is plenty of time to show what kind of cards you’re holding.  Hawley seems to be holding a broken straight and is trying to bluff his way past it:  Legion is a collection of striking, sometimes almost transcendent, images — from a mentally ill man who buries himself in constructed greenery to a fleeting but recurring demonic image that looks like it emerged from a Ralph Steadman grotesque — but they have yet to coalesce into anything coherent.  With the third episode coming up, the show has given up plenty of interesting visuals, but almost nothing interesting in terms of plot, character, or even basic storytelling from which to hang them.

Part of this is the fault of the medium.  I’ll be frank here:  Legion, for the most part, simply doesn’t make any sense, and this is from someone who counts ambiguity, surrealism, unreliable narratives, and nonlinear narratives as very common elements in his favorite works of art.  It’s obviously building up to something, and perhaps by the time it gets there it will all have been worth it, but so far it’s a bit of a slog, with the viewer constantly bombarded with fragments of story for which we have no context or framework.  And I get that this is the daily life of the schizophrenic!  I am not immune to metaphor, particularly one that are laying it on a bit thick!  But that doesn’t make it very enjoyable to watch.  If Legion was a streaming series, with every episode of the season available for binge-watching, it might not seem so bad, but as it stands, the weeklong wait for something, anything, to add up to a narrative that gives us something to go on arrives at the point of diminishing returns very quickly.

More blame can be laid at the feet of the cast.  The British actor Dan Stevens, in the role of David Haller, has talent, but he’s reduced the character largely to a collection of tics — not only annoying and not especially dramatically compelling, but also a bit of an insult to the concept that Haller is either genuinely ill and deserving of kindness or isn’t actually ill at all.  Rachel Keller, also great in Fargo, is fine here, but she doesn’t have much to do yet, and her relationship with Stevens seems thrown in for convenience and very hard to care about.  (Still, props for the sheer audacity of naming her “Syd Barrett”.)  Again, these problems, as well as the relative thinness of the support cast, may be mitigated over the coming weeks, but this is an eight-episode season, and every minute Legion spends dicking around with unreliable narrators, hallucinations, false memories, and other residue is a minute we lose interest in what we’re seeing and start not caring about where it’s all going.   It looks good enough to keep me on that hook for now — hell, it even had a Serge Gainsbourg dance number! — but it needs to build up some narrative goodwill quickly.

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