Three years ago, Noah Hawley did the impossible: he made a TV adaptation of Fargo that held its own with the classic 1996 Coen Brothers film that inspired it. He then topped himself a year later, turning Fargo’s second season into the best TV show of 2015.
Now the creator is ready for his biggest challenge yet: pulling off a hat-trick with Fargo Season 3, which stars Ewan McGregor (who is playing two brothers) and will debut on FX in April, while also launching FX’s first superhero series, Legion, which premieres tonight.
Based on a character from Marvel’s X-Men comics, Legion follows David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), who has been told all his life that he is mentally ill, but has begun to realize that he actually has mutant, psychic powers. It’s Marvel’s first live-action series to air on a network other than ABC or Netflix.
Hawley spoke with Adweek about turning another beloved brand into a distinctive TV series, how he’s juggling the two shows and what’s in store for Fargo’s third season.
Adweek: You’re bringing together two very distinct, and somewhat disparate, brands in Legion with FX and Marvel. How are you approaching that?
Noah Hawley: The first X-Men movie starts in a concentration camp, so you know that they’re concerned with the real nature of evil in the world, and not just the supervillain of the week. So that felt like it presented the opportunity to explore morality and human nature in the same way that you would on Fargo or another FX show. Which is to say that there’s darkness and there’s light, but there’s also nuance. What I loved about the franchise is that you have Magneto’s character, who grew up in that concentration camp, and he says, “We should kill them all, because they’re just going to kill us.” And he’s kind of right. Then there’s Professor X on the other side, and he says, “No, we can train them, we can teach them to live with us.” And he’s also right. Which is very different than this binary: a good character’s always good and a bad character’s always bad.
So that appealed to me, this idea that the struggle over morality is never fixed, it’s constant. And characters that are good under the right circumstances can do bad things. That felt like the FX show. Then on the Marvel side, there is a sense that the readers of these comics—and I saw it at Comic-Con—a huge part of the fan base feels like they don’t fit in. These stories are metaphorical for them, about defining themselves instead of being defined by society. So it felt like the perfect kind of balance.
It would have been one thing to upset fans of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo film with that series, but comic book fans take everything personally if you make any sort of misstep with Legion. How daunting was that, to jump into this different universe?
The traditional approach is to say, “issues 113 through 120 are the first season.” But what happens when you do that is, just by the nature of the animal, you’re going to end up changing things. And if you’re telling a story the fans know, they don’t like that at all. But if you’re telling a story they don’t know, if you’re saying it’s inspired by these stories and these characters, then my hope is certainly that that judgmental part of the brain—where it’s like, “You’re killing something I love!”—is turned off. Because they’re saying, “I don’t know what this is or what to expect from it, but look, it’s doing this thing that I love about the books, and it’s doing this other thing.”
On the flip side of that, because you were so successful at making Fargo your own, does that give you more leeway with Marvel and its fans with Legion?
I think so. There’s this concept in Hollywood called “execution-dependent,” which is: it’s a great idea, but in order to be great, you have to make it great. It can’t just be a high-concept thing. I think I’ve proven my ability to pull off the execution-dependent show. So it’s going to be this crazy, existential, genre show, but it’s going to satisfy you on all the genre levels. It’s also saying, there’s a large part of the canvas that’s already been covered in multiple places, but there’s other parts of the canvas that felt like new territory, and that’s what I wanted to explore.