KORVA COLEMAN, HOST:
It's a superhero show without capes, masks or flying. The FX cable channel show "Legion" returns for a second season Tuesday, trying to extend its reputation as one of its TV's most ambitious comic book adaptations. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans tells us how they pulled it off.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As a fan of comic books and superheroes, I'm not sure I love "Legion." But I do love how the show completely overturns typical storytelling about good, evil and superpowers - like this scene where Aubrey Plaza's character Lenny Busker is lounging by a pool with her friend Oliver. It sounds relaxing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")
AUBREY PLAZA: (As Lenny Busker) It's Tuesday, right?
JERMAINE CLEMENT: (As Oliver Bird) What is?
PLAZA: (As Lenny Busker) Today - I'm asking, is it Tuesday?
CLEMENT: (As Oliver Bird) This is a conversation about time. I try never to have conversations about time.
PLAZA: (As Lenny Busker) (Laughter).
CLEMENT: (As Oliver Bird) Something funny?
PLAZA: (As Lenny Busker) We're trapped.
DEGGANS: But they're actually prisoners of the show's bad guy, the Shadow King. Plaza says her role is as surreal to play as it looks onscreen.
PLAZA: It feels like performance art. And it feels like we're kind of this band of theater character actors that are like, you know, performing this weird experimental art piece.
DEGGANS: Plaza's character Lenny was the villain last season. The show's hero David Haller thought he was schizophrenic. But David, played by "Downton Abbey" alum Dan Stevens, was actually a superpowered mutant with another evil entity, Lenny, living in his head. Last year, Lenny escaped by jumping into Oliver's head. Now both of them are controlled by a mutant hundreds of years old poised to threaten the world. Confused? Plaza actually confronted show creator Noah Hawley about how crazy her character story was.
PLAZA: I was kind of having a meltdown about that - having my own existential crisis and kind of flailing about. And Noah wrote a short story for me that was kind of the story of Lenny. And it's not in the show and in the scripts. But it's just my own little personal treat that I got from him.
DEGGANS: For those of us without a guide book from Hawley, "Legion" is a mind bending journey through a surreal superhero universe. The plot is simple even if the way it's told isn't. David is tracking the Shadow King for a government agency that protects the world from evil mutants. But the show takes surreal turns, including - in the second season - an intricate dance-off between David, Lenny and Oliver.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DEGGANS: And moments where a familiar voice talks about how a delusion resembles a disfigured, baby bird.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")
JON HAMM: (As character) A delusion starts like any other idea as an egg - identical on the outside, perfectly formed. From the shell, you'd never know anything was wrong. It's what's inside that matters.
DEGGANS: Yeah. That's Jon Hamm. Creator Noah Hawley has said the show plays with ambiguity. Different viewers will likely see different meanings in the same episode. That ambiguity can make the show difficult to follow, which is why I don't love it more. But it's a bold vision for a genre where conflict usually boils down to muscular guys beating on each other. And it's what makes this season of "Legion" among the most subversive television you'll see this year. I'm Eric Deggans.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF RUSSO'S "LEGION MAIN TITLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.