The need for safety is what kicks things off in The Gifted, Matt Nix’s Marvel superhero drama for Fox. When bullied teen Andy Strucker (Percy Hynes White) is pulled into a locker room by his tormentors, his psychokinetic powers manifest in a desperate attempt to protect himself from their abuse. Unfortunately, he endangers everyone else at the high school dance, including his sister Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind), though we learn she’s more than capable of taking care of herself.
Soon, the teens are on the run with their parents, Caitlin (Amy Acker) and Reed (Stephen Moyer), who will do anything to protect their kids. But they’re not just up against discrimination or even a bewildered local police force. After years of witnessing—and suffering from—the in-fighting among the X-Men and the Brotherhood, humanity has made a concerted effort to contain that threat. Anti-mutant laws have been passed and, as the series begins, mandatory testing for the X gene is being implemented. And that’s just the stuff government officials hold press conferences about. There’s also a far more extreme (and dangerous) agency known as Sentinel Services, which looks like an off-the-books operation but is actually empowered by an “amended” Patriot Act. It seems non-mutants want to feel safe, too.
The fear of discovery and of the unknown that runs through the pilot will be familiar to readers of X-Men comics, or just fans of the film adaptations first helmed by Bryan Singer 17 years ago. In addition to co-executive producing the new series with Nix, Singer directs the pilot, which is why it has the look and feel of one of his previous entries, especially X-Men: Days Of Future Past. But The Gifted’s hour-long premiere isn’t just some truncated movie spin-off. The episode may bear Singer’s hallmarks, but Nix’s story provides a fresh take on teen angst, family tensions, and being feared for being different. The script is far from flawless; some of the dialogue is clunky, and Acker’s character is underdeveloped compared to the rest of the Strucker family. Good performances and respectable special effects help the pilot clear those hurdles, though, and set up a promising new drama.
Even the requisite exposition is handled rather deftly; The Gifted addresses the giant X in the room with throwaway lines between altercations that indicate Professor X, Magneto, and their respective broods have either gone into hiding, or suffered a worse fate. This explanation sets up the dire prospects of mutants in this world without closing the door on guest appearances. The series shares Legion’s restraint in linking to the established, cinematic world of superpowered beings, while also doling out an Easter egg or two. And like Noah Hawley’s drama, The Gifted is more interested in exploring the psyche of these young mutants, whether it’s their response to discriminatory practices or realizing just how far that sense of not belonging goes.
These gifted youngsters aren’t without their heroes, though. In place of the X-Men, we have the Mutant Underground, led in part by Marcos (Sean Teale), a.k.a Eclipse. He’s an original creation for the series, with abilities similar to Dazzler’s, but his colleagues’ names will ring some bells. There’s Clarice/Blink (Jamie Chung), John/Thunderbird (Blair Redford), and of course, Lorna/Polaris (Emma Dunton), who got her magnetic abilities from her famous father.
There’s also currently no need for an evil Brotherhood, because these exceptional folks are in the government’s crosshairs. The extent of the conflict isn’t overstated; civil rights are suspended left and right, all in the name of protecting American citizens. The Gifted doesn’t trumpet its connection to current events—after all, X-Men comics have always been about being other-ed through official channels—but with references to border walls, the show isn’t sitting on the sidelines either.
But the pilot isn’t just a referendum on immigration or mutants’ rights. It’s full of humor and solid action sequences, including Blink’s first meeting with the Mutant Underground, which opens the episode. The scene gives us a taste of everyone’s powers without blowing the show’s budget on demonstrations of portal hopping or a light show. But what’s more impressive is how quickly it establishes the sense of community among the mutants, who regularly risk their lives to save others like them.
Also balancing the show’s more fantastic elements is the dynamic among the Struckers. Lind and White play believable and likable teens; they’re obviously dealing with more than most, but they’re not too precocious either. Early on, most of the inner turmoil is reserved for Reed, who, as a district attorney assigned to the Mutant Task Force, is initially on the other side of this war, which makes his immediate decision to save his children all the more resonant, and potentially damning. He’s a patriot and a father, and while he doesn’t hesitate to help his children, it’s obvious that he believed in his work prior to the fallout. And Moyer’s performance takes us through Reed’s shock, disillusionment, and finally, determination.
There are still some weak spots to fortify before the series moves forward. Acker’s Caitlin isn’t given nearly as much to do; she also moves from disbelief to dismay, then gets stuck there. The way some of the powers are dramatized will need to be tweaked, from the actors’ end—the reliance on hand gestures means everyone’s come up with their own signature move, with varying degrees of success. But there’s also an exciting (yet daunting) development by the episode’s end that suggests The Gifted is evolving along with its mutant characters.