When the guy with a wicker bucket on his head (who only talks through androgynous android-clones in Tom Selleck mustaches and Beatle wigs) is the least weird thing about your show, that show can safely be called... distinctive.
Welcome to season two of Legion, FX's not-your-daddy's-mutant-superhero-series, helmed once again by Noah Hawley, between gigs running FX's other stylish, genre-inflected offering, Fargo.
Legion is the story of David Haller (a perpetually rumpled and vaguely confused Dan Stevens), the world's most powerful mutant, who's now free of the evil psychic parasite known only as the Shadow King, who last season assumed the form of his friend Lenny, played by Aubrey Plaza. David's grown up believing himself to be schizophrenic, but came to realize his true nature when he was taken in by an organization seeking to train him — and to fight the Shadow King, who is in fact an ancient being known as Amahl Farouk (played, this season, by Navid Negahban).
As you can see,the broad outlines of Legion's story don't stray terribly far from typical superhero fare — newfound powers, secret organization, sinister bad guy, rinse and repeat.
But Legion isn't about the story. Not really.
It's a visual and aural feast, a stylized-to-the-point-of-gorgeous-absurdity testament to what a director with a good eye (and a loose leash) can bring to series television. Each episode (the first four of season two were made available to press) features showy, inventive camerawork — every scene magnificently framed and rapturously lit — and gleefully bizarre imagery. It's also filled with sound cues that delight and/or unsettle (there's a recurring bit involving chattering teeth that does both, every time).
Legion is so thoroughly itself — so obviously wrought, so painstakingly constructed — it risks self-indulgence, crossing the line from showy to show-off-y. Viewers hungry for a simple story simply told will likely grow impatient with the show's languorous approach to storytelling — whole episodes pass without moving the main conflict forward an inch. The fourth episode, for example, gives long-overdue attention to David's girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller), via that most dreaded and momentum-killing device in serialized television — the flashback.
And yet: That deliberate pacing, and all those dazzling visual flourishes, exist in service to these characters, and their (to say the least) singular predicaments. Those flashbacks work, because Hawley and his directors know that keeping us visually enthralled won't do any good if we're not emotionally engaged. That's why the show's performances stay as grounded and specific as they do. Stevens' David, especially, constantly undercuts the bizarre goings-on with a hesitant, beta-male form of incredulity that infuses the show with sly humor.
Plus, of course, the dance numbers. Oh, the dance numbers. (This season, the character of Cary, played by the great Bill Irwin, finally gets a brief chance to shake his eminently shakable groove thing, and it's worth the wait.)
Legion is technically a part of the Marvel Universe — but it's millions of light-years away, emotionally and aesthetically, from either the gritty streets of the various Marvel series on Netflix, or the cosmic sweep of the The Avengers. It's a dark, trippy corner of that universe, where time moves more slowly, but it's filled with moments and images you'll find nowhere else.
Trust me, the guy with the bucket on his head is only the beginning.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.