TV shows

TV shows ‘Legion’ and ‘Powerless’ are pushing the superhero genre into new territory

‘Legion’ features a lesser-known character from the X-Men comics, while ‘Powerless’ is about the staff at Wayne Entreprises.

Over the past two years, the superhero has been coming to our screens with almost predictable regularity. There are the large-screen dust ups involving the Avengers, and then there are the smaller screen encounters of lesser-known heroes such as Supergirl, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. The TV series have been more critically well-received, with shows such as Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Daredevil marrying strong storylines and complicated plots with larger, ethical questions and superb acting. These shows have also made a strong pitch for diversity on TV, since the characters hail from groups that are too often underrepresented in the mainstream pantheon.

And yet, the tone of the shows has tended to fall into one of two categories: campy, shot through with tones of comedy (Supergirl, Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) or noirish, prestige drama-influenced heavy hitters, the domain of the Marvel-Netflix offerings. While the dramas have paid some attention to the angst that comes with being a powered being in a dark world, the attention has been focused, to a great extent, on that staple aspect of the superhero story: chasing down and bringing the bad guy to justice.

Enter two new shows that effectively broaden the range: FX’s Legion, and NBC’s sitcom Powerless.

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Legion.

Legion centres around one of the lesser-known but more powerful mutants from the X Men franchise. In the comic books, David Haller is the son of Charles Xavier and a powerful mutant in his own right. With telepathic abilities that rival those of his father and his protégé Jean Grey, David, or Legion as he comes to be known for his multiple personalities (the product of his severe dissociative identity disorder), was often considered too dark to be included in film or animated versions of the comic. It’s no wonder then, that when he finally comes to the screen, some of the darkness stays with him. The first episode of the Noah Hawley-created show is set in a mental institution, where David (played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) is recuperating after a breakdown, one which involved an apartment destroyed by telekinetic powers, and a suicide attempt.

Or did it? With every scene, Legion seems to remind viewers of the sheer unreliability of David’s point of view. As someone who is unaware of where his powers come from and what they are capable of, David is constantly on edge, unsure of whether the things he is seeing are really there and whether the voices he seems to hear are real, or the product of what his minders call his paranoid schizophrenia. It’s only when he meets Sydney, a woman who does not like to be touched, that he seems to begin trusting himself, letting his numbed mind awaken from a pill-induced haze.

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Legion explainer.

The episode slips in and out of different timelines, flickering through sepia-toned flashbacks and vibrantly hued scenes in the institution, then forward to David in the present. It brings to mind the work of Darren Aronofsky, whose films are famous for their unreliable narrators, often made more so by drugs. There is a trippy quality to Legion that, much like Aronofsky’s films, underlines the grimness and sadness at its core. This is no campy superhero tale, nor the stark universe of Christopher Nolan and other Marvel shows. It’s a world where we are as unsettled as the hero. Dan Stevens captures beautifully the angst and sheer terror of his situation, as well as the moments of levity that arise when he speaks to fellow inmate Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), and the tenderness of his feelings for Sydney.

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Powerless.

NBC’s Powerless is as far from this mind-bending experience as you can imagine. It follows the lines of a sitcom – 21-minute episodes powered by witty dialogue, set in an office space peopled by attractive characters from diverse backgrounds (the cast notably includes Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame and Danny Pudi, Community’s Abed). The only difference? It’s set in the DC comics universe, where ordinary people have to deal with the fallout that results from the actions of superheroes and supervillains.

Emily (Hudgens) is an enthusiastic new recruit to Wayne Enterprises in Charm City (not Gotham, as the CEO of her new office laments). It’s Emily’s job to head the research and development team, inspire them to create products that will keep the branch relevant, and convince the conveniently off-screen Bruce Wayne to not shut them down. Emily is excited to be in Charm City, where costumed heroes regularly make their presence felt in the skies, but her coworkers have grown bored of these encounters, choosing to stare at their phone screens rather than watch yet another epic battle take place above their heads.

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Powerless: Forget the Box Existed.

Powerless veers off the beaten track by making the standby characters – the people in the office buildings, on the streets and in the ruined train cars – the main act. Superheroes may cause the events that take place in the show, but we are more concerned with how these everyday people deal with them. Wayne Enterprises is tasked with superhero/villain-proofing office buildings, and dealing with the logistical consequences of their existence, such as insurance policies and early detection systems. For these people, superheroes are not a source of wonder or even admiration. They are a daily inconvenience that must be tolerated. The show is both a spoof of the genre and an eye-opener. Living in Metropolis might be exciting, but when you think of all those broken windows caused by Superman, or the daily fear of having your train hurled off the tracks by a crazed villain, the charms start to fade.

Both Legion and Powerless push the scope of the superhero show, one by forcing viewers to consider the sheer terror of these powers to the uninitiated, the other by spoofing it and turning the focus from the actors to those who are in the background. Legion relies on stylistic storytelling and heartfelt acting to create its disorienting effects; Powerless on the banter and absurd characters that are typical of the traditional sitcom.

With so many different moods and stories of the superhero genre on offer, it truly is a good time to be a fan. There is something for everyone, and with the greater push towards inclusion and diversity (Wonder Woman (March 2017) and Black Panther (2018), it’s only going to get better.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.