The Gifted, Fox's attempt at translating the massive X-Men movie franchise to the small screen, is several shows at the same time. Is it a family drama? A superhero action spectacular? A metaphor about racial tensions in America, or coming out to your parents, or immigration? It tries to be all of those things; luckily for the series — which pulls far more from the X-Men comic books than the movies — the source material supports these broad interpretations.
That the show delves more into the comics is a bit of a surprise though, given the pedigree. The Gifted is the second Marvel/Fox co-production set in the X-Men multiverse to hit TV screens, after FX's phenomenal, mind-bending Legion. It's produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Simon Kinberg, two of the masterminds behind the X-Men movies, and the pilot is directed by Bryan Singer, the man who helmed the third, fourth and sixth best X-Men films.
But what The Gifted goes back to is the core idea of the comics, something that often gets lost in the bombast of the feature films: mutants, despite their genetically (excuse me) gifted superpowers, are hated, feared and hunted. They look different, they act different, their genetic designation — Homo superior -- is an indication they'll someday replace Homo sapiens. And because of this central idea, mutants have worked as metaphors for every marginalized group under the sun.
The Gifted, at least in the pilot, drills down on two of those metaphors: immigration and coming out as LGBT to your parents. It also dabbles a bit in domestic terrorism and profiling (like I said, there's a lot going on).
On one side, you have the Mutant Underground. With the X-Men and their diametrically opposed antagonists the Brotherhood mysteriously missing, the world has become ruled by paranoia and fear, with a government agency called Sentinel Services tracking down and locking up mutants. For, you know, general safety reasons. Enter the Mutant Underground, a group of hot, leather jacket-wearing superheroes who help ferry mutants over the border into Mexico, which has more tolerant laws toward the genetically blessed.
Their roster is an interesting mix of second tier mutants with limited powers: Lorna Dane (Emma Dumont) is the sarcastic, magnetic Polaris; John Proudstar (Blair Redford) provides an even presence as superpowered tracker Thunderbird; Marcos Diaz (Sean Teale) gets the most to work with as the light-powered Eclipse; and Jamie Chung looks like she's still getting used to her green contact lenses as the teleporting Blink.
The Mutant Underground is the ostensible setting (at least that's what the pilot seems to imply), so it's unfortunate this is the least thematically explored aspect of the show (screen-time wise, we spend a lot of the episode with the characters). Immigration is a fraught issue right now, and there's a lot that can be pulled and played with in the idea, particularly through the lens of mutant powers. But as is, it mostly plays like X-Men, but with half the powers, a quarter of the resources, and no Wolverine.
On the other, more emotionally rich side is the Strucker family, anchored by father Reed (Stephen Moyer) and mother Caitlin (Amy Acker). Reed is an attorney who helps prosecute mutants (including Lorna, who is captured early in the pilot), so it changes his life dramatically when it turns out both his children have powers. Natalie Alyn Lind's Lauren Strucker is the clear breakout of this series; she's an even, powerful presence who has her s--t together as a high school teenager, even more so than most of the adults. Meanwhile, Percy Hynes White's Andy Strucker walks the line between adorable nerd and angry school shooter type ably. (However, the show would do well to drop the sympathy-for-a-school-shooter metaphor, if anything falls to the wayside as the series grows.)
It's Andy's accidental freak-out at a school dance that causes the Struckers to go on the run and hook up with the Mutant Underground, bringing the threads of the show together. What's most surprising is how Reed takes everything in stride; there's a lot to be mined from a man who has been prejudiced against something all his life finding out his kids are that thing. Instead, Moyer immediately slips into action-movie mode. Hopefully more will be explored later on there, too.
If the show has one secret power, it's Amy Acker. As a mom/nurse, she doesn't get nearly enough to do in the pilot (will her medical expertise come in handy to the Mutant Underground? Probably!), but Acker owns every second she's on screen, and the pain she feels as her family goes on the run for their lives is palpable. Showrunner Matt Nix has said they'll move Acker beyond the "scared mom" dynamic as the 13-episode first season continues, which is a good thing. Acker is electric on screen, and the depth of her emotion is easily the show's best special effect.
It's through her, in fact, that the show captures one key aspect of the X-Men comics that has rarely been explored onscreen, with its focus on mutant mayhem and world-ending battles: how do regular humans react? How do they deal with all of this? Caitlin's protection of her children supersedes any need for a home, or safety, and leads to some heady drama. Similarly, Coby Bell's Sentinel Services officer Jace Turner shows subtle humanity: like many forces dedicated to oppressing minorities before him, he's just doing his job, but it wears on him.
Look, a pilot always has a lot to do. You have to introduce the characters, the concept, the setting, the tone, and ultimately a path for the series to go down, at least through Season 1 — and often for even longer. That leads to some extremely clunky and broad dialogue, and The Gifted attempts too much, while also not delving deep enough (in case that wasn't clear from the preceding paragraphs). But what does work — that would be Acker, the kids, the possibility for some very strong metaphors, and several extremely tensely filmed action sequences — is promising.
Could The Gifted ultimately collapse under the weight of many different ideas, like the comics so often do? Surely. But if they can focus and dig a little deeper — perhaps channeling some of the laser focus Legion brought to mental health over the course of its first season — there's the potential to create something unique, special and meaningful.
If not, we always have the comics.
The Gifted premieres Monday, Oct. 2 at 9/8c on Fox.