Film and drama

Screen Themes: Legion vs Riverdale

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It’s time to take a trip to the dark side as entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a look at two new TV shows: mind-bending superhero drama Legion and teen murder-mystery Riverdale.

(Warning: mild spoilers ahead.)


Created by Noah Hawley, FX network, Thursday 7.30pm

Loosely based on the Marvel comics character created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, Legion tells the story of David Haller, a young man with mental illness who happens to be one of the most powerful telepaths in the world. Diagnosed as schizophrenic as a child, David spent much of his life institutionalised and heavily medicated, until he encounters a mysterious new patient called Syd Barrett, who changes his life.

Thrust into a world of super powers and shadowy government agencies, David struggles to distinguish between what is real and what is in his mind, all the while pursuing a romance with Syd, a mutant with the ability to absorb the powers and memory of anyone she touches. Aided by the icily maternal Dr Bird (Jean Smart) David begins to learn more about his powers, revealing there may be much more to him than mental illness.

Due to the complexity of Marvel/Fox comic book character licencing, David Haller may or may not be the son of Professor X, recently played to perfection (for reportedly the last time) by Sir Patrick Stewart. It is interesting to note that Legion and the hyper-violent Logan share a common theme: what if one of the most powerful minds on the planet suffers frailties common to the human condition?

British actor Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) brings a touching vulnerability to David, while Rachel Keller is the perfect blend of intellectual attractiveness and unattainability. Special mention must go to Aubrey Plaza, David’s manic best friend Lenny, who may or may not be a ghost or a figment of David’s imagination.

In case the presence of a character named after Pink Floyd’s original singer didn’t tip you off, Legion is a very trippy show. Viewers are never quite sure what is real and what is going on in David’s head, which gives the showrunners licence to present some of the weirdest visuals since Twin Peaks. The opening episode is spectacular and, while subsequent instalments struggle to match this wonderful weirdness, there is nothing “normal” about Legion whatsoever.


Created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, now streaming on Netflix

Based on characters originally created by Archie Comics back in the 1940s, Riverdale is a teen drama murder mystery featuring updated versions of Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica. If this sounds a little esoteric to you, you might be right, as exactly zero people in my ten-person, aged-under-30 survey had ever heard of Archie, let alone read one of his boring-as-wallpaper comics.

Of course, the comic book world has moved on from the 1940s and Archie and the gang have recently enjoyed a four-colour resurgence, via titles like Afterlife with Archie, wherein Jughead is patient zero in a new zombie apocalypse. Fortunately, Riverdale doesn’t attempt to recreate the carnage of The Walking Dead, instead opting for a Beverly Hills 90210 meets American Gothic sort of approach. Not that you can tell from the early promos…

Narrated by the homeless, misanthropic Jughead (Cole Sprouse), who has replaced his trademark crown with a crown-like wooly hat, season 1 of Riverdale revolves around the murder of football douchebag Jason Blossom, possibly by his queen bitch sister Cheryl (Madealine Petsch). Famous redhead Archie Andrews is played by K.J. Apa, from New Zealand soapie Shortland Street after a lot of time in the gym; while rivals/besties Betty and Veronica are played by Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes, respectively. In a nice touch, most of the high-school age cast are actually played by teen actors, rather than some guy in his mid-30s.

Speaking of Luke Perry, the former 90210 heartthrob is now playing a character close to his own age, which is a good thing, as he hasn’t exactly aged well. Perry plays Archie’s good-natured father Fred, probably the best parent in a town of borderline psychopaths. Seriously, Betty’s mother Alice (Madchen Amick) is a two-faced, manipulative monster, Veronica’s mum Hermione (Marisol Nichols) is an entitled ice-queen, while Jughead’s father (Skeet Ulrich) is a sleazy biker.

In addition to the murder-mystery, Riverdale is driven by a healthy dose of modern sexuality, with Betty’s gay best friend Kevin (Casey Cott) pursuing a clandestine relationship with closested footballer Moose (Cody Kearsley). Rather than choose between Betty and Veronica, Archie starts the season having an affair with sexy music teacher Miss Grundy, while Jughead ignores his recently revealed asexuality to date Betty. It’s all… surprisingly enjoyable.

The Verdict

While I am far from the first to say this, it’s worth pointing out that we live in a golden age of TV drama. With budgets increasing, quality actors embracing the small screen and episodic storytelling giving way to grand thematic productions; so now is a great time to be a TV drama fan. Unless, of course, you can’t afford pay TV or Netflix, in which case you’ll be subjected to endless hours of demeaning reality shows.  

Both Riverdale and Legion owe a debt to shows like The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks, although Legion seems far more willing to take the risks that made those shows great. As the first seasons progress, each show starts to evolve into something more than what it was when it started, determined to push boundaries rather than rely on tired formulas like the dull and lazy Iron Fist.

At the end of the day, Riverdale is a well written, intriguing teen drama, but this very genre-based approach may turn some viewers off. Legion, on the other hand, is almost unclassifiable, but is definitely worth checking out for viewers with an open mind.

Legion — 9/10

Riverdale — 7/10

Enjoy what you've just read? John Turnbull's books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller, Damnation’s Flame; action/romance, Reaper; black comedy, City Boy; and travel guidebook, Bar Trek: Europe.

Damnation's Flame is now also available in the IA store. Free postage!

You can follow JT on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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