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I’m not going to tell you that Fox and Marvel’s new drama The Gifted is mandatory or necessary viewing. It’s just the latest TV show to attempt to tell a story of nascent mutant/superhero powers against the backdrop of family drama.
This is a genre that’s sometimes very good (the first season of Heroes), sometimes very bad (all subsequent seasons of Heroes) and often quite mediocre (remember ABC’s No Ordinary Family?), but never in short supply on the small screen or large.
Air date: Oct 02, 2017
So perhaps the smartest thing Fox has done is scheduling The Gifted to premiere Monday, just days after ABC’s own more directly Marvel-affiliated drama Marvel’s Inhumans. I’ve watched the pilot for The Gifted, the only episode made available to critics, multiple times, and each time it’s been after watching Marvel’s Inhumans, so I don’t know if The Gifted is good, but I’m sure it has a little heart, a little humor and that gives it a pretty huge advantage. If I’m doing comparisons, FX’s tangentially related Legion is so far beyond any of these network shows in terms of aesthetic and conceptual difficulty that it’s hardly worth mentioning in the same sentence. Again Fox’s timing for The Gifted, which will air its entire first season between seasons of Legion, is perfect.
Created by Matt Nix (Burn Notice) and running adjacent to the X-Men franchise, The Gifted is the story of the Strucker family. Father Reed (Stephen Moyer) is an attorney tasked with the prosecution of those with mutant powers, while mother Caitlin (Amy Acker) is apparently a nurse, which I may only know from press notes. Things get immediately complicated when an incident of high school bullying brings out son Andy’s (Percy Hynes White) own mutant powers, something along the lines of telekinesis, and prompts the outing of daughter Lauren’s (Natalie Alyn Lind) previously hidden gifts, which relate to manipulation of elements, mostly air.
This puts the Struckers in conflict with Reed’s bosses and with the Sentinel Services, an anti-mutant task force with very few governmental restrictions, and brings them into the sphere of the Mutant Underground, a group of extraordinarily photogenic young people (and one dog) trying to protect mutants and transport them to safety. The Mutant Underground includes a number of established X-Men characters including Emma Dumont as magnetism-wielding Lorna Dane (aka Polaris), Jamie Chung as teleporting Clarice Fong (aka Blink) and Blair Redford as John Proudstar (aka Thunderbird), plus Sean Teale as Marcos Diaz, whose powers are less clearly illustrated.
The thing The Gifted accomplishes that’s most essential is that the Struckers work as a family. Leaving aside the American accent that remains the bane of Moyer’s professional existence, he’s a sturdy leading man and he has very good chemistry with Acker, who is underutilized in the pilot, but still gives a few line readings that emphasize her character’s reasonable moxie. Both Strucker kids have elements of TV teen DNA that are actually pretty realistic in the short term, but could become extremely annoying as the show progresses and the writers force them to do stupid things to advance the drama. Initially, frequent TV “first girlfriend” (The Goldbergs and Gotham) Lind and White have a brother-sister dynamic that’s authentic enough.
Nix and pilot director Bryan Singer take the same kind of mutant-trait-as-metaphor approach that the original comics took and that Singer brought to his first couple of X-Men movies and that even Inhumans follows if you look closely. It’s the most inevitable thing you can do in the genre and the most perfunctory. So here, Andy is an uncomfortable outsider getting picked on by his school’s unremarkable alphas and when his emerging powers make him even more uncomfortable in his own skin, Lauren coaches him on embracing his identity and even goes so far as to reassure him, “It gets better.” This is even more on-the-nose, but less emotionally and symbolically rich, than the mutant “coming out” scenes Singer has staged previously. The longform storytelling of a 10-episode first season ought to offer the chance to extend and deepen the metaphor, but The Gifted seems to be already moving on by the end of the pilot.
The Mutant Underground itself should also be a place to play around with metaphor, both with the Underground Railroad echoes of its name and the irony that one of the places the group is smuggling people to find greater security and freedom is Mexico. This is soft-peddled in the pilot and with Redford and Teale making forgettable first impressions, it’s the least interesting part of the opening hour. Since her character’s powers boil down to glowing hands and CG effects, Bunheads veteran Dumont conveys a lot of her character’s might with attitude and physicality and she’s the best part of this storyline by far.
The Gifted gets points for including X-Men characters with some name recognition and for acknowledging its place within the bigger franchise. That, however, raises expectations, too, as does Singer’s adroit work with a budget that no subsequent director is likely to have. Three or four effects-driven set pieces, including an unnerving climax with Sentinel robots more than balance out the soapy family moments. I have very little confidence that The Gifted will be able to achieve that balance in subsequent episodes, but I’ll definitely be watching to find out, which is more than I can say for Marvel’s Inhumans. It’s all a matter of context.
Cast: Stephen Moyer, Amy Acker, Sean Teale, Jamie Chung, Coby Bell, Emma Dumont, Blair Redford, Natalie Alyn Lind, Percy Hynes White
Creator: Matt Nix
Pilot director: Bryan Singer
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)
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