Why 'The Gifted' Ramped Up Its Sociopolitical Tone in Season 2

Creator Matt Nix talks with The Hollywood Reporter about using the Fox Marvel drama to expand the 'X-Men' mythology by making it more relevant for 2018.
Courtesy of Fox

[This story contains spoilers from the season two premiere of Fox's The Gifted.]

The gloves are off when it comes to getting political on The Gifted.

Fox's drama has never shied away from telling stories of prejudice and intolerance through the lens of science fiction with mutants, as most X-Men mythology does. But season two is ramping up the relevant sociopolitical themes, as illustrated in Tuesday's premiere, "eMergence."

Following a six-month time jump, the anti-mutant sentiment has grown violent as a result of the events of season one, with government-sanctioned raids resulting in innocent civilians who have done nothing wrong except carry the mutant gene getting hurt...or worse. The Mutant Underground has been forced into hiding even more so than before, attempting to help mutants who can't protect themselves against the militarized Sentinel Services.   

"Maybe it's just me, but you may have noticed some political turmoil in America lately. It's on people's minds," The Gifted creator Matt Nix tells The Hollywood Reporter of the increased political storylines in the premiere. The showrunner admits that while he always had a "general desire" to tell political stories on the Fox drama — particularly since "-Men has a history of that," he adds — season two organically evolved to match the real world's growing tension over certain issues the past year.

"A big part of it was that we just stumbled into being really well set up to tell a really relevant story because one of the biggest things this season — and you can see it in the premiere — it's not a good guys vs. bad guys story," Nix explains. "It's two sets of people who both have an aspiration for their people and who both care about people and who want to approach that in very different ways — ways that are ultimately incompatible."

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Nix to break down how he ramped up the political tone moving forward in season two, the controversial issues he'll be tackling, what The Gifted is doing this season that no X-Men property ever has before and more.

How are you telling more political stories this season?

Over the course of the season, what you'll see with the Mutant Underground and the Inner Circle (but then with other groups as well that merge over the course of the season) is it's about a country getting completely polarized around that issue [of what to do about mutants]. It's about people not being able to see eye-to-eye. We don't really pose easy answers. "Maybe everybody can just meet in the middle!" On some issues, there really is no middle.

How does that move forward after the premiere?

From here, it actually gets more socially relevant as one of the big groups this year is the Purifiers who are our anti-mutant hate group that Jace [Coby Bell], the Sentinel Services officer in season one, gets involved with this season. It's a very human approach to getting involved with a hate group. He's not just a random bigot. These are also people who have a vision for the country. We touch on everything from gun control issues to the shooting of unarmed people of color, all sorts of things. They're very natural stories to tell in this universe so we were just like, "Let's do it!"

Is there anything you saw over the course of the past year that inspired certain stories on the show?

It does not take too sharp an eye to notice that there is a resemblance between Sentinel Services raids and ICE raids. That was a case of definitely doing something specific to what was going on in the real world. But I wouldn't say [we were inspired by] specific headlines. Weirdly, it got cut but we had a whole story in an episode that involved going to a detention facility where mutant children were being kept in cages that happened right when that was happening [in the real world]. At the time, it hadn't happened yet. But we didn't do it because we couldn't find the facility, a place with the cages; for budget reasons, we had to do something else. And then three weeks later it happened. We were like, whoa, we have to be careful about that in the future. But coming up there is definitely some Unite the Right stuff, very much in a X-Men universe. It's not the same thing exactly. Our hate groups are actually multiracial.

Can you expound on that? That line from Reeva (Grace Byers) in the premiere revealed there is still actual racism based on the color of people's skin in this universe. That's never been explored in this X-Men universe before where prejudice only applies to mutants, not based on race.

One other thing we tried to do this year, a lot of times in the world of the X-Men — and I'm not leveling this a criticism, it's just traditionally been the case — mutant oppression stands in for all other kinds of social issues. We made a conscious decision to say this is a world where racism exists and also anti-mutant prejudice exists. When Reeva talks about being hated for the color of her skin before she was hated for being a mutant (and she didn't know she was a mutant when she was 12), that was our way to comment on that.

Where did the inspiration come from to take that leap from the source material?

We had to make a decision since the main character who is joining the Purifiers is African American. If you read the comics, they are very much like the KKK. But we decided that this is a world where there are Purifiers and there is also the KKK. For that character, that becomes an issue because he has decided to join one hate group that he belongs in but is aware of the existence of other hate groups he does not belong in and of which he would be a target. Rather than shy away from it or pretend, we just went right at it and had it be an issue for the character. An African American mutant actually confronts him about that issue. It's an opportunity that we had to expand the range of issues that we deal with.

How did you prepare to tell that sensitive and potentially controversial story?

We looked at a lot of documentaries about what it takes for someone to join a hate group – and we don't do a cartoon portrayal but we wanted to see how someone who is a decent human being could take steps down that road feeling like he's doing the right thing. It's a little complicated to parse it out but we did it last year in referring to apartheid. It was a very glancing reference but that's when we made that decision that there was regular apartheid in South Africa and then mutant apartheid because I didn't want to tell a story that existed in a world that was just a sci-fi world and not our world.

What are you hoping to accomplish by telling these sociopolitical stories this season?

Hopefully change the world utterly by episode 15 or 16. [Laughs.] No, when I think of how television shows make a difference to people, it's usually you see something, you're entertained, you identify with some characters and then when those characters are confronted by issues, it helps you understand and relate to it. I remember watching an episode of The White Shadow when I was younger and it was about gay rights. I didn't realize gay rights were a thing, and that episode woke me up to that. What I would hope is that people might look at these characters standing in as analogies for immigrants or other oppressed groups and be moved.

Shifting gears a bit, how has the show changed this season as Fox becomes a broader-focused network of procedurals and multicamera comedies in the wake of the Disney sale — since The Gifted doesn't fit into either genre?

That never really comes up. Nobody ever says, "Our brand priorities are this," or that kind of thing. I'd actually say that, in a way I actually really like, we were much more affected by — in terms of what people were watching and looking at The Gifted as being possible to be The Gifted — nighttime soaps, if that makes sense. A number of us on the show are big This Is Us fans, so we could bring elements of that to the show without stepping on anything they're doing. Because there is no way you're going to turn us into a procedural. And I'd love to see someone try to turn it into a multicam. Fox is conscious in a way that a broadcast network needs to be now of they like the idea of something being bingeable, but at the same time, they want people to have fairly easy entry points. That is the evolution of the show, and that means, in a way that suits me well, we don't actually take episodes off; there are no sleepy episodes with no action. There is going to be mutant stuff every episode, action every episode, all of the things we do every episode because we're not Netflix and we can't have two episodes in the middle to shuffle for a while as we wait for a big moment.

The Gifted airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.