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Latest Episode Of 'Legion' Delivers A Thrillingly Original Hour Of TV


This is FRESH AIR. TV writer-producer Noah Hawley has created three separate seasons of his series "Fargo" for the FX cable network. And our TV critic David Bianculli has loved them all. David is also a big fan of Hawley's other FX TV series "Legion," which began its second season two weeks ago. But David says that tomorrow night's episode of "Legion" is one of the strangest and most compelling hours of TV he has ever seen. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I've been watching TV professionally for a long time now. And nothing excites me more than seeing something new - not new as in the premiere of a new series but new as in something unexpected, unpredictable, something I've never really seen before. The extreme version of that - when it feels like I'm on some sort of amusement park thrill ride and just holding tight, when the visuals, the sound and the story are equally exciting and unusual - has happened to me three times now. The first time was in the '80s with the first musical hallucination in Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective." The second was in 1990 with the third episode of David Lynch's original "Twin Peaks" - the one with the Red Room and the little dancing man. And the third - well, if you watch "Legion" Tuesday night on FX, you'll see the third.

"Legion" in its shorthand description doesn't sound very promising, much less extraordinary. It's based on a Marvel comic series. And it's all about a mental patient named David whose hallucinations and violent episodes may be manifestations not of madness but of untapped and unknown mutant powers. If the premise of "Legion" doesn't sound like the basis for a brilliantly original TV series - and it doesn't - just remember when a largely unknown guy named Noah Hawley announced he was making a TV version of the Coen brothers' deliciously weird movie "Fargo" but with an original story and set of characters, who thought he could pull that off? Yet he has - three times already.

And "Legion," which has yet to draw the notice it deserves, has become even better in season two. It's not only the best Marvel Comics adaptation on TV - better even than Netflix's "Jessica Jones" and "Daredevil." It's one of TV's very best shows right now - period. And if you're put off by the increasingly ubiquitous comic book genre, give "Legion" a chance. Two seasons in, there are no costumes, no superhero teams - just David, played by Dan Stevens from "Downton Abbey," making his way through various conflicts and timelines as though they were mazes. And sometimes they are - literally.

In last week's episode, David entered a sensory deprivation tank to increase and focus his mental powers and images - allowing Hawley to reference visually both the out-of-body tank from "Altered States" and the psychedelic star-gate trip from the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey." In "Legion," Dan goes on a space and time odyssey and last week ended up reuniting in the future with his girlfriend Sydney, played by Rachel Keller.


RACHEL KELLER: (As Sydney Barrett) I never thought I'd see you again - like this.

DAN STEVENS: (As David Haller) Am I dead in the future? Wait. Am I dead?

KELLER: (As Sydney Barrett) It's complicated.

BIANCULLI: That's for sure. After all, Dan is an incredibly unreliable interpreter of his own story. He never knows whether what he's experiencing is real - and neither do we. Sometimes, people switch bodies. And part of the puzzle is figuring out who's who. Costars include Jean Smart and Aubrey Plaza. And this season, "Legion" has introduced another perspective to help us make sense of things - a narrator who tells short little parables, which are photographed beautifully against a dreamlike white background. The parables may not be familiar - like the rest of this TV show, they question the very meaning of reality - but the voice of the narrator is. It's Jon Hamm, using the same tones he used as Don Draper to describe the Kodak Carousel in "Mad Men."


JON HAMM: A wise man once said, reality is that which when you stop believing in it doesn't go away. For the tick, reality is a product of temperature and butyric acid. It's perception of the world is its reality. The bloodhound has 200 million scent receptors. Its perception of the world is based fundamentally on smell. A dog doesn't reason. A tick never thinks about the universe in any way separate from its biological interactions with the universe. Human beings, on the other hand...

BIANCULLI: Ideally, you should hold off watching this week's new episode of "Legion" until you've seen the previous 10. It's a show that's a lot of fun to dissect and interpret - the way "Lost" was and the original "Twin Peaks" and Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner." And if you want to do your "Legion" homework, previous episodes are available On Demand and on Amazon Prime and Hulu. That's one great benefit of the current age of streaming television. It's easy to join a show in midstream and to binge to get caught up. But whatever it takes to get ready for "Legion," do it. This week's episode is a thrillingly original and artistic hour of television.

GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching. "Legion" airs on Tuesday nights on the FX Network. David's latest book is "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my interview with former FBI Director James Comey, which I just recorded. I asked about how he seems to be sounding an alarm about the president. We talked about the accusations that Comey used a double standard in making public the Hillary Clinton email investigation but not discussing Russian interference in the election. And we talked about a whole lot of other things. I hope you can join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media as Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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