The Gifted is set in a world where the X-Men are missing, but it doesn’t quite know how to fill the void.
The X-Men belong on TV. This is something I’ve believed for a long time now, and it’s something that’s slowly starting to happen. FX’s Legion was a wild, brainy, prestige-TV take on Marvel’s world of mutants, but it was also mostly sequestered in its own, nondescript corner of the world. The Gifted, which premiered last night on Fox, is more squarely set in the X-Men’s world of mutants and the people who persecute them, but also seems weirdly shy of going all-in on the comic book fun.
The Gifted is about the Struckers, a WASPy family of four that’s about as generic as they come—nice well-to-do mother, government-employed father, teen daughter comfortably placed in the high-school pecking order, and a bullied younger son. Their upper-middle class lifestyle is suddenly upended when the youngest Strucker—Andy—discovers he’s a mutant at while being bullied at a school dance, his latent telekinetic powers surfacing and causing the building to collapse. This forces his sister, Lauren, to also out herself as a mutant, using her power to project force fields to protect them both and escape. And so, the Strucker children, exposed as mutants, are targets of the federal government, with an enforcement agency known as Sentinel Services—responsible for rounding up dangerous mutants—after them. Which is ironic, since their father, Reed Strucker, also rounds up mutants for a living. And so, to save his children, Reed must turn to the underground cell of mutants he was rounding up to help save his children.
It isn’t hard to see what The Gifted is trying to do here—in fact, that may be its biggest problem. It’s the least subtle thing imaginable, carrying itself with the grace of a giraffe on roller skates, crashing into metaphors and hoping you find it profound or relevant. Of course, a lack of subtlety isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to superhero fiction—the great strength of X-Men comics is just how flexible its allegory is. While the comics are widely taken as an analogy loosely based on the civil rights movement, the story of mutants undergoing transformation and forming their own community in the midst of a public that hates and fears them is just as applicable to queer communities, or any real-life story involving dysmorphia or diaspora. The X-Men aren’t a subtle metaphor, but they’re a generous one, allowing for a powerful, primal connection.
Unfortunately, The Gifted‘s attempt to make the mutant metaphor relevant right now is a clumsy one. I appreciate its intent in making its central characters a comfortable, well-meaning white family who must confront prejudices that they’ve heretofore found reasonable, but I’m leery of its ability to pull that off in a smart way. Case in point: One of the mutants involved in the underground cell is Marcos Diaz, aka Eclipse. He’s the shows only Latino character so far, and he grew up smuggling drugs for cartels, which is the canned backstory given to Latino characters when they’re supposed to have complexity. He’s also an original character, not from the comics—so you see why I’m apprehensive.
All told, the premiere is… promising, to put it optimistically. It’s not a particularly good episode of television by itself, but it moves quickly, and the stuff it’s pulling from has potential. The Gifted can only make its world bigger and more interesting, and I can’t help but want to see where the show goes as more writers and directors and voices get a handle on the show’s premise.