Either I’m imagining things, or our television characters are suffering from a serious hallucination epidemic. Show after show is filled with visions, horrific flashbacks and ominous flash-forwards. What protagonist these days is not afflicted with nightmares, vividly recovered memories and other tightly edited torments? Who is not hearing strange voices?
What used to be a nifty and occasional narrative path into the psyche has instead become a standard-issue sequence of subconscious chaos, where bad dreams abound. Art departments have standing orders to produce billowing drapes, flickering fluorescent bulbs and flying furniture. Alert the stunt team that tomorrow’s scene will once more be set in the murky depths of dark water, as our protagonist struggles to surface. Please have a clairvoyant child stand at the edge and stare.
TV-character psychosis can sometimes be temporary: After a season spent in morbid fear of his former prison guard, Noah in “The Affair” finally realized that he was hallucinating the whole thing and trotted off to Paris with his new lover. More often, psychosis is depicted as extra-visionary, lighting a path to special understanding, offering the key to the mystery — a favorite solution in the Damon Lindelof school of tangled script-writing, learned long ago from David Lynch’s backmasking dwarf dreams.
Actors surely love it when their characters are plunged into madness — all scrunched up in the corner, screaming and thrashing about as unseen demons converge. The only people on the set who love it more, I suspect, are the cinematographers tasked with finding new ways to turn a camera sideways. What does it all meeeean? (You figure it out.)
This little rant is brought to you by my mixed feelings about the first three episodes of Noah Hawley’s tripnotic new FX drama, “Legion” (premiering Wednesday), where, once again, viewers find themselves trapped in the center of a tortured mind. Having successfully dabbled in the hallucinatory during the second season of “Fargo” (weaving in appearances from Ronald Reagan and UFOs), Hawley has freedom here to go full-throttle on the visually bizarre aspects of “Legion,” in which the main character, David Haller (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”), has lived most of his life with mental illness.
“Legion” is based (rather loosely, it seems) on a Marvel Comics character from the 1980s, which technically means that we have been given yet another show about superheroes.
But if that’s what this is, then it’s the first superhero TV show I’ve seen that does not feel heavily obligated to the demands of the Comic-Con horde, which prefers adaptations to be dour, canonical affairs. “Legion” is produced “in association” with Marvel, “inspired by” a comic book, which may well suggest that this is a superhero show for the rest of us, who won’t really care that it’s derived from an offshoot story line in the “X-Men” saga.
The only hurdle, therefore, is to follow along — which takes some discipline. After opening with a playful montage of David’s troubled boyhood (set to the Who’s “Happy Jack”), “Legion” indulges in a great deal of jerking back and forth between past and present, as well as real and imaginary. In institutional commitment, David is poked, prodded and medicated by doctors and other sinister visitors who want to know more about his uncontrollable ability to move objects with his mind when he gets extremely upset. (Or when he has a bad dream. “Legion” brings all the tropes.)
In addition to friendly exchanges with a strange patient named Lenny (Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation”), David is immediately smitten with a newly arrived patient, Sydney (Rachel Keller of “Fargo”), who returns his affections, even though she won’t allow anyone to touch her.
Hawley has set “Legion” in an ambiguous point in time — the architecture inside and outside the mental institution evokes a post-Space Age style I’d call “Canadian community college, 1977,” as do the tracksuits worn by its patients; David’s visitors, including his sister Amy (Katie Aselton), sometimes seem dressed for a “Mad Men” episode in the early ’60s.
The chrono-dislocation seems intentionally vague, lending “Legion” an extra layer of puzzlement, even though the initial focus is on the show’s unrelenting portrayal of madness. The first episode is a beautifully made hour of jittery, trippy, doped-up, strapped-down, telekinetic surrealness of a sort we’ve seen many times, many ways. It’s especially disappointing when the viewer begins to realize that Plaza is playing a character who appears to be . . . (spoiler alert, I guess?) . . . a hallucination.
Things take an even more familiar, Marvel-like turn when Syd stages David’s escape, ingeniously using her own powers. By now, even lapsed (or non-) comic-book readers who’ve paid the tiniest bit of attention at their local megaplex in the past 15 years will get it: A team of mutants, guided by Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), has sprung David to convince him that he’s not schizophrenic — he’s a mutant with extraordinary potential. Things get stranger still when one of his rescuers, Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), displays his ability to transport a group of people into David’s memories, where they are free to poke around.
As creator, writer and director, Hawley does everything he can to suppress the yawns that will surely come from the superhero-disinclined, setting the tone for a show that favors personality over powers, with dialogue that thankfully lacks the sonorous ballast of most superhero movies.
Scrawny and jangled, Stevens is more than believable as a man whose mind is a mystery to himself. In moments of super-distress, David has the ability to make every object in the room sail around him in a vortex. Watching the contents of his kitchen drawers and cabinets take flight is enthralling — and it also works as a metaphor for “Legion’s” chaotic start. Must it always be the viewer’s job to pick up the pieces?
Legion (90 minutes) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.