As the options for scripted TV continue to balloon to nauseating proportions, more and more good shows are not able to break through the noise and find the audience they need to survive. This TV season, Fox's The Gifted seems to be careening into that dreaded fate. That's a tragedy because The Gifted is really good TV.
The series is set in the X-Men universe, but Marvel's famous mutants are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the show centers on the Strucker family, which is forced to join the mutant underground after teenagers Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Andy (Percy Hynes White) are forced to reveal their powers at a high school dance. Lauren, Andy and their parents must go on the run to avoid being detained by Sentinel Services, the government agency in charge of rounding up "dangerous" mutants. Strucker patriarch Reed (Stephen Moyer), who works for Sentinel Services, must trust the people he has spent over a decade prosecuting to save his kids from the same fate he's sentenced so many young mutants.
From a numbers perspective, the show kicked things off in early October with a respectable 1.48 rating in the adults 18-49 demo and came just shy of 5 million overall viewers, but the stats have only dropped from there. While these numbers are leagues above Marvel's other fall outing Inhumans, The Gifted tied its season low (0.8 in the demo, 2.8 million viewers) with this week's fall finale. That is not good news.
So, how does a Marvel show about mutants fall into this kind of rut?
Being a Marvel production means that you get a big budget and access to a mind-boggling array of comics to pull stories from, but it also means that you're saddled with Marvel-sized baggage. For The Gifted, that means the "Everything is connected" attitude of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which the show is not part of. It's not part of the Fox X-Men movie universe either (at least not yet). The mere idea that the show could be connected forced early promotion of the show to focus on whether the X-Men or Deadpool would appear in the series, and if so, when and how. Outside of the possibility that Magneto is Polaris' (Emma Dumont) father, the X-Men are only mentioned in the series — but that is one of the show's greatest assets.
The Gifted focuses on how mutants survive in a world that has turned against them. With the X-Men in hiding, the show is allowed to focus on the street-level heroes. The audience can see the themes and concepts play out without getting distracted by Easter Eggs or arguing about how The Gifted fits in a larger film universe. The semantics aren't important but the story is. The mutants on The Gifted aren't trying to save the world, just each other. That kind of grounded storytelling is what makes the show one of the best superhero shows on TV.
The series understands the golden rule about genre shows: characters first, effects second. Things started with two parents concerned about their son being bullied at school, which made us immediately sympathetic to Andy's plight, and we understand that the Struckers are parents who care about their children above all — no matter what Reed's job is. The bullying attack on Andy at the high school dance showed how extreme his torment has actually been and his super-powered freakout felt deserved. We care about the kid in distress and we are on board with whatever measures need to be taken to save him. Meanwhile, the mutant underground was introduced as they saved a scared homeless comrade while losing their most valuable fighter in the process, so we immediately understood the stakes for these people who can't control how they are different.
The Gifted balances the scale with their "antagonist" Sentinel Agent Jace Turner (Coby Bell). He's not an evil man bitter that he doesn't have cool powers. He's a father who lost his young daughter because of reckless mutants. He doesn't just think they are dangerous — he's seen firsthand what happens when mutants lose control and he wants to save anyone else from experiencing his pain. Even if you don't agree with Turner it's hard not to see things from his side of the board, which makes watching his tango with the mutant underground that much more intriguing.
This is not to say that The Gifted shrimps on effects in favor of dialogue. It performs extremely well when the explosions or superpowers need to happen, but the mutants only need their powers when necessary — whether it's for survival or important character moments. For instance, the effect of Polaris and Eclipse (Sean Teale) combining their magnetism and solar powers is a beautiful replica of the Northern Lights and absolute #relationshipgoals. If you're here to see mutants be mutants, you definitely won't be disappointed — even if you don't recognize their names from the movies or comics you enjoyed as a kid.
Even if the series has no definite ties to the MCU or Fox's X-Men movie universe, the pace of the show still feels cinematic. In contrast to fellow X-Men show Legion on FX, which is tailor-made for the cerebral comic book fan, The Gifted is for the emotional popcorn eaters of the world. Creator and executive producer Matt Nix has created a high-octane thriller that expertly hinges each episode into the next so the show feels more like a 13-hour movie than an episodic sludge.
"I want a propulsive, central story, where we're doing lots of stuff. It's what makes it fun for me," Nix told TV Guide. "The other thing is I have three kids, and they are 15, 13, and 11, and what they watch is binge-worthy shows. That's what they care about...To be honest, that was a huge influence for me. I'm watching things with them, I'm watching how they watch. I'm watching their reactions to what I'm doing. They're very sweet kids, but they're pretty ruthless. They'll tell me if they think something is boring."
That's a winning perspective to have on television in 2017, except when you're trying to knock it out of the park for broadcast. It's entirely possible that The Gifted could see huge second season returns as The CW's Riverdale did between its first and second season with Netflix binges (The Gifted is available on Hulu and on Fox.com) — but will Fox see those numbers in time to make the right renewal decision?
Don't risk it! There are three episodes left in The Gifted's first season, with the holiday season in between before the show returns on Jan. 1. That is plenty of time to binge the first season (it'll go quick) and be ready for the tail end of the show's first run. The is the superhero show you have been waiting for. Don't let it go eXtinct before it's reached its full potential.
The Gifted airs Mondays at 9/8c on Fox.