One of the more curious things about The Gifted was how little about the show Fox revealed in the months leading up to last night’s premiere. We knew it would feature a family on the run from the mutant-hating government and a handful of classic X-Men characters, but not much else aside from that.
Details about The Gifted were vague and for ages, the only footage of the show that Fox was willing to release were from a handful of scenes that you’d expect from a show about mutants being hunted. Because The Gifted, like Legion, was pitched as a show independent of the X-Men movies or any one specific X-Men story arc from the comics, Fox’s choice to play their cards to the chest was as baffling as it was frustrating.
After having watched the premiere, though, Fox’s decision makes a certain kind of sense. The Gifted is trying to tell one of the most X-Men™ X-Men stories that’s been on broadcast television in decades, but unlike most of its predecessors, the focus isn’t on the larger than life heroes or their cool powers.The Gifted really wants you to care about its characters and see them as people.
While being harassed by a bunch of bullies at a school dance, Andy Strucker’s (Percy Hynes White) nascent mutant powers violently manifest themselves for the first time and almost tear down the building on top of dozens of students. Andy’s older sister Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) reveals herself to be a mutant as well and rushes her brother home as footage of the event—a scene clearly inspired by Brian de Palma’s 1976 Carrie—hits the internet.
The Strucker kids make it to their home and immediately come out to their mother Caitlin (Amy Acker) who realizes that her family is in danger just as government agents show up at their front door. The Struckers flee into the night and contact father of the family Reed (Stephen Moyer,) a lawyer who specialises in prosecuting mutants caught using their powers illegally. From there, the family begins to frantically search for a way out of the country in hopes of finding refuge where mutants aren’t as persecuted. The Struckers find unlikely allies in the underground mutant resistance headed up by Polaris (Emma Dumont), Eclipse (Sean Teale), Thunderbird (Blair Redford), and new recruit Blink (Jamie Chung).
If you’ve spent any time at all reading about or watching the X-Men, The Gifted’s premise will sound like familiar, well-trodden ground that gets right at the heart of one of the franchise’s central ideas: mutants are a feared, misunderstood minority.
But rather than establishing that idea and quickly shifting to focus on people using their cool abilities to battle, The Gifted not-so-gently reminds you that it isn’t really a story about superheroes fighting to protect the disenfranchised. It’s first and foremost a story about a family forced to drop everything and start running for their lives.
There’s a hollowness to many of Fox’s X-Men movies that stems from the odd lip-service they speak to the idea of mutant persecution while never quite managing to make that persecution feel real. The students at Xavier’s school are in a near-constant state of danger from the government, sure, but a lot of that has to do with the way that the X-Men repeatedly insinuate themselves into extremely strange situations. The widespread fear and hatred of mutants that would drive a student to Xavier’s always feels conspicuously missing or halfhearted.
The Gifted, by comparison, is chiefly concerned with creating a world that feels hostile towards mutants in an all-encompassing way. Though it’s been a slur for mutants in Marvel’s books for decades, the word “mutie” isn’t a big part of Fox’s X-Men franchise, but when her mother says it an offended Lauren informs her that the politically correct term is “person of genetic difference.” When Reed’s forced to confront the role that he plays in a legal system that isn’t designed to protect mutants’ civil rights, he ashamedly admits that he knows how some mutants are simply disappeared by the government rather than given fair trials.
The Gifted’s is a world where you honestly wouldn’t want to be a mutant because it would very likely mean living in a constant state of fear that someone or something—like sentinel drones—would expose and lock you away in the name of protecting the public.
The Gifted makes it difficult to forget those stakes because it keeps its level of action and tension relatively down to earth for its cast of characters. The show knows its budget and understands just how to pull off its handful of powers-heavy scenes in a way that conveys the danger everyone’s in. Where Legion’s powers at times felt outsized and improbable, The Gifted’s come off as cool, but not so ridiculously buffed that the mutants are always guaranteed to get away.
The Gifted’s relative down-to-earthiness is definitely one of its stronger suits, but what will be interesting to watch as the season progresses is how the show decides to have its characters move throughout the world. The Strucker family’s on-the-run act worked well as a scene-setter but going forward, it’s going to be important that we see them and the mutant underground doing more than just running.
Eventually, they’re going to have to make a stand and fight their battle in the public eye, the only place it can ever really be one. Let’s hope their journey to that battlefield is an exciting one to watch.