As an elevator pitch, Legion and The Gifted sound like the exact same television show: A small band of young mutants, learning how to use superpowers they can barely control or understand, hide out from a shadowy government organization dedicated to capturing them. The series aren't directly connected to each other (so far) or the X-Men movies, but they're both drawing from the same comic book source material.
On screen, the two X-Men-inspired series read as stark contrasts. Legion, one of several prestige dramas on FX along with The Americans and American Horror Story, has all the trappings we expect from peak TV. The cast is packed with talented young film stars like Dan Stevens (Beauty and the Beast) as David Haller, the son of X-Men founder Charles Xavier with reality-bending powers of his own, and Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West) as the psychic parasite Shadow King, a powerful enemy from the pages of the comics. The show is also visually arresting, portraying the nightmarish interior of David's fractured mind by slowly evolving from jumpy flashbacks and split-second inserts to a more linear story structure as David regains his grip on sanity over the season.
The Gifted, which airs on FOX, doesn't have the same ambitions. The CGI superpowers and action set pieces are skillfully executed, but comparable to the other superhero dramas broadcast on the big networks in prime time, like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or The Flash. The Gifted is also unfortunately saddled with its share of shortcomings, ranging from wooden dialogue to the distractingly fake green contact lenses the costume department foisted on Jamie Chung.
Beyond their different aesthetics, each show is separately chasing after one of two diverging themes that have made for the most successful X-Men stories since the comic was first published more than 50 years ago. Legion is about our struggle with our own identity and an "enemy within," while The Gifted's best moments present external threats, such as a government exercising sweeping police powers to control teenagers with abilities that defy the laws of physics.
With its emphasis on the external, The Gifted turns out to be more grounded than Legion. While the good guys in Legion seem to have ample funding to live indefinitely in an isolated modernist compound that looks ripped from the pages of Dwell magazine, our protagonists in The Gifted's Mutant Underground hunker down in dilapidated buildings, throwing bricks and hammers at each other to hone their abilities. They worry about how they're going to get food or whether they'll run out of medical supplies, while on Legion the mutants lunch in a cafeteria where a computer speaks with the velvety voice of Jemaine Clement (What We Do in the Shadows, Moana).
Most of Legion's first season takes place within this isolated bubble. The government agency, Division 3, is a threat, but it's largely in the background. Meanwhile, most of the mutant abilities in Legion are powers of the mind: telepathy, transferring your consciousness into another body, letting others experience someone else's memory, and astral projection. No one is shooting lasers from their hands or turning into metal.
Legion's writers use those psychic powers as a vehicle to explore probing philosophical questions about the slippery nature of memory and the stories we tell ourselves that define who we are. It makes for fascinating television, and it's in line with some of the trippy Legion comic book stories like X-Factor #70, where Xavier wanders around in his son's desolate mind after defeating the Shadow King.
Legion has its share of superpowered fights, of course, and when David unleashes his full powers, he ruins the day of anyone caught in his path by, for example, embedding them in a wall or folding them up like origami. But there's no indication that the general public has any idea that these mutants exist. The driving point of the narrative is that they have to keep David and the Shadow King from escaping into the wider world, because of the catastrophic level of destruction they could unleash.
Legion is ultimately like a horror movie — the setting is confined, so it feels like this could all be happening near your home town without your knowledge.
On The Gifted, everyone knows about mutants, and that's a problem. Mutants cause a tremendous amount of physical damage, often in plain view of bystanders. This was one of the underrated aspects of Bryan Singer's X-Men films, too: The X-Men often turn a pleasant day out into a disaster scene with brutal quickness, whether it's Cyclops blowing the roof off a public building with his eye beams or Magneto dropping RFK Stadium down on the White House lawn.
Once we see kids in The Gifted telekinetically tearing apart their high school or beating up cops, the aggressiveness and secrecy of mutant hunters in Sentinel Services seem entirely plausible. We're still rooting for the mutants, but it's primarily because they're fighting for their freedom. Our sympathy for the law enforcement agents who are trying to lock them up, however, rests entirely on the deft performance of Coby Bell as Sentinel Services agent Jace Turner.
Bell treads a fine line by playing Agent Turner from the get-go as a good man put in a tough position. Turner is dedicated to his job and doing what he sees as the right thing, but he never lets his qualms show to the people he sees as enemies. He has no problem imprisoning Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer), even though Strucker was a reliable prosecutor of mutant "terrorists" the day before. Every time he faces off against the Mutant Underground, Turner is collected and professional.
Legion has its equivalent government agent in Clark (Hamish Linklater). Clark begins the series as David's no-nonsense interrogator. When he gets a pen stabbed through his face and later is horribly burned by a fireball for his trouble, we're happy to see it. Clark doesn't show up again until the season finale, where we learn his name for the first time and see his slow recovery from those burns with a loving partner at his bedside. When Clark limps back into the office, more coolly determined than ever to catch David, we understand better why he acts like a heartless bastard, but we still want him to fail.
We similarly uncover more of Turner's backstory in Episode 5 of The Gifted, titled "boXed in," which shows the death of his school-aged daughter when things get explodey during a mutant rights march. We don't need that scene to humanize Turner, but it's there to make it more impactful when Turner's memory of that day is wiped later in the episode and he has to learn that his daughter was killed all over again.
After suffering that trauma a second time, Turner is ready to do whatever it takes to finally round up the Mutant Underground. But he's still shocked when, in the episode "eXtreme measures," a mutant working for Sentinel Services makes a government official who is threatening to shut down the program suffer a stroke.
Making Turner behave like an actual human makes the danger he poses to the Mutant Underground seem more real. Legion's Division 3 is full of uncomprehending bureaucrats who slowly realize they're in over their heads. On The Gifted, Turner seems to know exactly who he's up against — and how to win.
The Gifted isn't aiming to pry open profound insights about the human condition like Legion, and it doesn't have to. But it could stand to draw more of its characters — especially in the Mutant Underground — as thoughtfully as Agent Turner. (There's also a decent chance Turner might eventually flip to fighting alongside the mutants, perhaps even before the end of this season.) Legion is also due for a shift in focus. Since its season finale ended with the Shadow King hijacking a new mind and driving off into the distance, the world of David Haller and his fellow psychics won't stay isolated for long.
If you want to see how the dueling themes of Legion and The Gifted can play out simultaneously in an X-Men story, you don't have to look any further than this year's novel superhero/western mashup Logan. Wolverine and Professor X are yet again on the run (this time from a shadowy private corporation) while battling their own psyches in one form or another: Professor X loses his grip on reality while Logan confronts his mortality by literally fighting his younger self. Balancing those ideas probably helped the final Wolverine installment earn all that critical praise and box-office success.