The Gifted isn’t the X-Men series we might have expected Fox to drop in prime time, but it’s the X-Men series we need. Instead of trying to tell a world-saving superhero story hamstrung by the budgetary constraints of television, The Gifted instead carves out a small corner of this huge world and tells a simple story about a mother and father trying to keep their kids alive, and a pair of teens grappling with the scariest of teenage travails.
Adolescence is bad enough, but add in the ability to go full-on Carrie when you get upset? Yeah, things can get complicated fast.
The show focuses on the Strucker family, who become caught in the crossfire of a brewing conflict between the government and mutants, with Stephen Moyer and Amy Acker portraying parents who take their family on the run once they realize their teenage children (Lauren, played by Natalie Alyn Lind; and Andy, played by Percy Hynes White) have mutant powers. The chaos kicks off when Andy’s powers manifest while he's being bullied, and he almost takes down a school gymnasium. When the government tries to pick him up, Reed (Moyer) and Caitlin (Acker) seek out the mutant underground to try and protect their family.
It’s alluded to in passing, but this story takes place in a world the X-Men and Brotherhood of Evil Mutants have long abandoned. In their absence, a far-reaching government agency dubbed Sentinel Services (a not-so-subtle nod to the mutant-hunting Sentinels in the comics) has stepped in to enforce anti-mutant laws, giving them the latitude to round up any mutant they deem dangerous. Before realizing his kids were mutants, Reed spent his days as a prosecutor putting mutants behind bars. It’s a bit heavy-handed, sure, but it’s a juxtaposition that works when you watch a man throw away literally everything at the drop of a hat when it’s stacked against the need to protect his family.
Family dramas are obviously nothing new. The genre has been a staple of television for decades, running the gamut from Little House on the Prairie to Party of Five and everything in between. But it’s not terribly often we see it crossed with the world of superheroes, and to that end, executed as well as it is here. NBC’s short-lived No Ordinary Family tried and failed to become a live-action Incredibles back in 2010, while more mainstream hits like Smallville and Supergirl have all dabbled in family dynamics along the way.
The themes might be tried and true (heck, one of Marvel’s longest-running comic franchises, the Fantastic Four, is all about family), but what sets The Gifted apart is that it’s not about superheroes making their families work. It’s about kids who can’t control dangerous abilities, their powerless (literally and figuratively) parents trying to keep them together, and a burgeoning mutant underground hanging by a thread in a world on the verge of snuffing them out.
Families either break or galvanize in the face of adversity, and The Gifted brings it by the truckload. The sense of otherness, and themes of prejudice, are no strangers to the world of the X-Men — but The Gifted manages to put a fresh spin on concepts comic readers have been digging into for decades. It’s not the story of Wolverine slashing his way through an army of ninjas, or Jean Grey trying to escape her fate at the claws of the Phoenix Force. It’s the story of Andy trying to break free from being bullied, and Lauren using her powers to protect her mother during a car crash.
Looking beyond the Struckers, the other half of The Gifted’s ensemble focuses on a different type of family, but a family nonetheless. We meet some B-list mutants from the X-Men canon helping keep the equivalent of a mutant underground railroad afloat, including Marcos/Eclipse (Sean Teale), Clarice/Blink (Jamie Chung), Lorna/Polaris (Emma Dumont), and John/Thunderbird (Blair Redford). Some of these characters may have been X-Men at certain points in the comics, but here they’re just low-level mutants trying to keep their heads down and survive.
Series creator and showrunner Matt Nix has a penchant for telling stories like this (his previous USA hit Burn Notice had a similar motif, with a ragtag team of ousted spies finding happiness among one another), and you can feel that in the DNA of The Gifted. Be it the family you’re born with, or the family you make, this show is all about those ties that bind.
The pilot episode was directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, X-2, Days of Future Past), and he certainly brings a cinematic eye to help kick off this world. Fox has been wanting to get an X-Men TV series on the air for a while now, developing and abandoning a Hellfire Club project before opting to move forward with The Gifted. At least judging by the pilot, it seems the studio made the right call by getting this one into production.
It’s also worlds away from what Noah Hawley is doing at FX with the cerebral sci-fi drama Legion, to the point you might not even realize these projects hail from the same fictional universe. In both cases, that’s a good thing, because it shows the strength of the material and how it’s being adapted.
Of course, this being a Marvel project, there are still more than enough nods to the comics for keen-eyed fans who are looking. From a clever use of the animated series X-Men theme song, to a certain cameo you don’t want to miss, this still feels like a Marvel project, and an X-Men project specifically.
It just worked out that the secret formula to make the X-Men work on television is to focus on what happens to the world when they’re not around. As long as it works, we’re not complaining.
The Gifted premieres October 2 at 9 p.m. on Fox.