APB. Fox. Monday, February 6, 9 p.m.
Legion. FX. Wednesday, February 8, 10 p.m.
No television network rolls the dice with more abandon than FX. Originally conceived as a way to wring a few last nickels out of Fox's massive library of old action movies and television series, FX went rogue early the new millenium, offering up a steady stream of envelope-shredding programming that was as unhinged as it was excellent. Killer cops as heroes! Enema slapstick! Self-fellatio!
So when FX announced it was embracing television's obsession with comic-book super heroes, you knew there'd be a catch. And Legion is a big one, in every sense of the word, a rollicking psychedelic trip of a show that washes over you like a vat of Ken Kesey Kool Aid. Splashy, free-associative and generally as nuts as its schizophrenic characters, Legion is as delirious and dazzling as television gets.
Legion is based oh-so-loosely on the Marvel Comics character David Haller, a minor character in the X-Men comic-book family, so tangential that Marvel's studio gladly licensed him away rather than hanging on to him for one of its own films.
And, on paper, you can see why. Dogged by hallucinations and fearfully violent temper tantrums since early childhood, Haller has been in and out of mental hospitals his whole life. His latest stay (in an institution with the suggestive name Clockworks) has lasted five years and shows no sign of ending, and Haller is increasingly resigned to a life of over-medication and locked rooms.
That is, until a new inmate, pretty blonde Syd Barrett (the TV series Fargo), shows up. Though Syd's particular neurosis (she can't stand to be touched, even slightly) is not exactly conducive to romance, they quickly become a couple. Syd, however, is frustrated by Haller's acceptance that he belongs inside the hospital.
"What if your problems aren't in your head? What if they aren't even problems?" she challenges him. What if "that's what makes you, you"?
It's difficult to explain in any detail what happens after that without major spoilage of surprises that writer-director Noah Hawley has gone to extraordinary lengths to create. Suffice it to say that Haller does have some extraordinary powers, though it remains unclear whether they're the cause or the result of his derangement. Whichever is the case, they make him the object of multiple conspiracies, at least one of them lethally hostile, and the action rolls along at a quickening pace.
There's another very good reason to not explain too much: There's a good chance I'd be wrong. Even more than the delusional cybervigilante Elliot Alderson of Mr. Robot, Haller is an unreliable narrator. The lurid, paranoid hallucinations that frequently detour or derail his train of thought make it nearly impossible to be certain what's real or true at any given moment.
When a crowd of milling mental patients suddenly assembles into a Bollywood dance number, is that a schizophrenic's symbolic speech? A religious epiphany? Or just unglued synapses firing off in random patterns? Haller's disordered mind is interwoven into nearly every frame of Legion; hazy memory fragments dissolve into delusions and then dreams. Voices speed up, slow down; things break and crash; memories unspool, then abruptly rewind. Entire characters may be hallucinations. Watching Legion is fascinating, and at times, enervating.
Hawley's liquid camera work and stutter-step editing effortlessly track the course of Haller's meandering thoughts; a wall turns into the top of a ping-pong table into another character. And everything from the show's wardrobe to its vehicles to its soundtrack is full of purposeful anachronisms that lend an almost subliminal sense that everything is flying apart, that the center of Legion's world cannot hold.
All of Hawley's magnificent visual skills would be for naught, though, if Dan Stevens, the catastrophe-magnet young lawyer of Downton Abbey, weren't giving the performance of a lifetime as Haller. Stammering in incoherent confusion at one moment, cannily mendacious in the next, he brilliantly conveys the poignant (and, sometimes, enraged) bafflement of a man acutely aware of his own capacity for delusion, but never certain when it's kicking in. After two episodes, I'm not at all certain where Legion is headed, but I'm desperate to go along for the ride.
The destination of Fox's new cop show, APB, is easier to establish: The twilight regions of the Nielsen ratings. Imagine Elon Musk, in a fit of boredom, buys the Chicago police department and you've got the idea of this odd little show.
Justin Kirk, who played Mary-Louise Parker's wiseass brother-in-law on Weeds, has the Musk-like role here, zillionaire engineer Gideon Reeves. When the Chicago cops seem indifferent to the stick-up murder of his best friend, Reeves blackmails the mayor into letting him take over the slum police district where it happened.
Reeves immediately equips the cops with $100 million of high-tech equipment, including a flock of Taser-equipped drones (but no guns, because Fictional Chicago Lives Matter). He also floods the residents of the district with a see-something-say-something phone app called APB to make it easier to rat out their neighbors.
From there, APB alternates between enough bang-bang to satisfy even the most trigger-happy Starsky & Hutch fan, and arguments between Reeves and the cops on whether crimes get solved via gadgets or the cops who wield them. The show might have been more tolerable—a lot more tolerable—if it took up some of the civil liberties issues entailed in having a police drone peering into every window in an admittedly high-crime.
Kirk, it must be said, struggles mightily to save the show with his portrayal of the imperial billionaire Reeves, forced to walk among the proles. (Reporter: "You've been accused of grandstanding." Reeves: "Thank you.") But even at his best, he's no match for Gene Barry, who starred as millionaire police captain Amos Burke in the 1963-65 Burke's Law. The urbane Burke was squired to crime scenes in a chauffer-driven Rolls Royce but had a light touch with the ladies and was full of sensible aphorisms like, "Never give your girl and dog the same kind of jewelry." Or drone.