Watching Legion on FX and Detroiters on Comedy Central
Someone is playing a trick on David Haller (Dan Stevens), the lead of Noah Hawley’s new FX series Legion, which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. It could be the sinister agents of the semi-governmental organization cryptically referred to as Division Three, who tell him he’s insane. It could be the kooky spiritual therapists at a woodland retreat called Summerland, who tell him he’s the world’s most powerful mutant and the key player in an upcoming, ill-defined war. But whoever’s the con man and whoever’s the stooge in this whole hazy setup don’t compare to the show’s writers, who easily bamboozle the viewer; the fun of watching Legion is the subconscious feeling you get that it might wind up sending you to an asylum yourself.
As you might expect, Legion is the latest installment in the ever-expanding X-Men universe, which, due to a torrent of copyright lawsuits that might be even harder to follow than the show itself, occupies a space unconnected to the gargantuan Marvel machine, and is on something of a roll right now—Deadpool, a good movie, has managed to convince a whole generation of filmgoers that it’s a great one, and Logan, the yet-to-be-released final Hugh Jackman Wolverine picture, has fans chomping at the bit already. By far the greatest strength of the show, however, is that it pays no tribute to the long history of the franchise. Hawley, who is also the creator of FX’s Fargo, wrote the first two episodes and directed the pilot, establishing a visual style that’s the bastard child of Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, and Darren Aronofsky, all in the service of that rarest of treats: a show so simultaneously low-key and high-stakes that it’s impossible to tell as of yet whether too much or too little is going on.
It’s hard to say how long Hawley can keep this up, but as of now the series is captivating—anchored by the entirely sympathetic presence of Stevens, of Downton Abbey, a chameleonic Brit who’s been too busy with the press tour for the live-action Beauty and the Beast to revel in his return to TV. Which is too bad—he effectively centers a characteristically Hawley-esque sprawling ensemble that includes the excellent Rachel Keller, the pleasantly surprising Hamish Linklater, the extraordinary Jermaine Clement, and the off-the-deep-end Aubrey Plaza, who here forever shatters her typecast mumbling, nihilist persona. If some of the acting outside this central circle is weak, it’s easy to ignore. The minute the show becomes unbelievable, there’s a hard cut to a ping-pong game lit like a disco, or a tank of undulating leeches, or, most often, a creature accurately known as the Devil with the Yellow Eyes. And you’re left wondering, “Am I crazy…?” As a utilitarian tool for questioning your own sanity, Legion outdoes anything reality TV has to offer.
If David Haller feels like the only crazy person in the world, he’d do well to visit the Detroit of Comedy Central’s Detroiters, Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. As a tribute to the home city of its two leads, the rising star Sam Richardson and the former SNL cast member Tim Robinson, and as the portrait of a dysfunctional dependent friendship, it’s drawn immediate comparisons to Broad City, another Comedy Central show, that aren’t far off. But unlike on Broad City, where hijinks take pride of place over character, most of the plotlines in Detroiters are secondary—the show expertly cultivates that atmospheric warmth that normally doesn’t envelop a sitcom until a few seasons in. Richardson, as Sam Duvet, lives next door to Tim Cramblin (Robinson), who’s married to Sam’s sister Chrissy (Shawntay Dalon), and their blended-family intimacy feels earned, perhaps because Robinson and Richardson are best friends in real life, much like Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of Broad City. (Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence should be getting the call from Comedy Central any day now.)
Detroiters’ distinctiveness comes in the way it’s structured, right from the beginning, to play right to its stars’ strengths. As directors of a podunk advertising firm, specializing in clients like “Eddie Champagne, the Hot Tub King of Detroit,” Richardson and Robinson are such aggressive sad-sacks that feeling sorry for them feels beside the point. The possibility of their advancement is ridiculous. Of course they’re going to pass up the chance to buy a cheap production van to buy a tiny fire-engine-red motorcycle to ride together. Of course when they get the chance to pitch to the head of advertising at Chrysler (guest star and executive producer Jason Sudeikis), they’re going to hit him with their car. You expect that. It’s nothing new.
The viewer gets caught up, however, in the little tics and idiosyncrasies that probably make Richardson and Robinson themselves laugh—Robinson’s default expression of wide-eyed disbelief, Richardson’s totally unfounded suavity. Robinson is better here than he ever was on SNL (which is not a high bar), while Richardson is not quite as good as he is on Veep (which is). But generally it’s amazing to watch them wandering the streets of their Motor City to realize that everyone in this version of Detroit is just as endearingly nuts as they are. The show may not be challenging or original, but it’s easy and pretty consistently fun. There are worse places to hang out on a Tuesday night.