All Show Creators Should Be Like Legion’s Noah Hawley
Noah Hawley is a fucking genius. Strangely enough, no one had even heard of this guy until two years ago, when he created the television show Fargo, a both spiritual and actual successor to the Coen Brothers’ weird and chilling film about darkness and murder sitting in the heart of a small Minnesota town not called Fargo. He had not been silent before then but his projects had been relatively small or short-lived — a direct-to-DVD release called The Alibi and two shows that only lasted a few episodes on ABC. With Fargo, Hawley found a story and a tone that similarly to the Coen Brothers combined madcap humor with a meditation on people’s capacity for evil and violence. More than anything, it was his departure from broadcast TV and its many rules and handcuffs. With cable TV (Fargo airs on FX), Hawley maybe couldn’t overuse the F-word, but he could create a gripping story that spans ten hours of television and not have to cater to the most basic of tastes. Fargo excels because it doesn’t tell you everything. In Season 1, you still don’t know why it’s called Fargo aside from the presence of a couple of thugs who say they were sent from that city in North Dakota. If you talk to anyone from that region, they would tell you that there’s nothing in Fargo, but apparently not if you’re a fucking genius.
Hawley found something unique, entertaining, and beautiful with Fargo, and someone at Marvel Television Studios thought it would be a good idea to hand him the reins to a superhero comic adaptation. The Legion pilot, named simply Chapter 1, may be the best pilot ever made. It checks off all ten boxes, including no over-reliance or boring takes on shot-reverse-shot conversations, a montage set to a Who song (Hi, CSI Miami, the world misses you.), a long single-take action sequence, and choreographed dance routines. It follows David Haller AKA Legion, a mutant from the X-men comics with telekinetic and telepathic powers. The pilot functions as the origin story where we first meet David languishing in a mental hospital because of the voices he hears and the strange events that seem to follow him. Events transpire, as they do, and Haller begins to realize that his illness might be something completely different.
The series is produced by Marvel Television Studios, responsible for the Netflix shows, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and the upcoming Iron Fist, as well as ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, but it does not live in the Marvel Cinematic Universe like all these shows do. It is significantly better for it. The movies and the shows, to some extent, in the MCU have been rightly criticized for being bland and similar to every other superhero show or movie since Ironman. Even visually, within the color pallet, these movies have become uninteresting and uniform, as described in this video by Patrick Willems. Daredevil looks actually better in the dark than it does in the light, ironically enough, though in that case it works for the show rather than against it. Legion consistently surprises and impresses with its stunning set design and quirky color pallet. The costumes are often eye-poppingly bright against the white backgrounds in the principal sets, a mental hospital and an interrogation room. Hawley chose to go with more pastel colors with a lot of contrast, which makes the show look a lot like a Wes Anderson film visually, although the camera-work and script are much less whimsical.
Furthermore, there is much less action in the first episode than a typical Marvel product. There are moments where David’s powers present themselves, but the only fight is shot in one long tracking shot rather than quick edits. For a comparison, it might be worth looking at a scene of Black Widow fighting in Captain America: Civil War. To take down one henchman, there may be as many as five edits, creating a dizzying effect. Truly talented directors are able to frame the action without cutting every time a bullet or a blow is struck. Steven Spielberg showed it in Saving Private Ryan and even John Wick, an action movie which could have gotten away with the cheap trick of quick cuts eschews that method by letting the actors and the stuntmen and women actually go through the motions of a fight. Noah Hawley follows much the same philosophy in how he films the action sequences.
Legion needs to balance style and substance, however. While pretty to look at, it needs to keep forward momentum. Stylish directing brings critical praise, but an interesting plot brings the viewers. As a pilot for a superhero show, you can’t do much better. The protagonist and his flaws and obstacles were established, while hinting at larger conspiracies. My brother said that it was at least at the same level as the Lost pilot. For now, it appears to be the best thing to come out of the comic book superhero mythos in a long time. This write-up was a little on the technical side, but Legion is so technically flawless that it dominates the conversation, at least for the pilot.