Although four episodes in seems like a reasonable point to write up this ‘initial reactions’ post for Fox’s leading new series, The Gifted – based on the ever-successful X-Men movie franchise – I am in fact joining this party a little late.
While we’ve become used to most shows with a decent budget and in a competitive timeslot lasting around 23 episodes (often with a season break in the middle), The Gifted parts from American broadcast TV tradition and restricts itself to a concentrated 10 episodes, leaving this ‘initial reactions’ post closer to the halfway point than the start of the show.
Still, let’s cast our nerdy eyes over the latest variation in the myriad alternate X-Men timelines and see how The Gifted stacks up.
Core of the X-Men
As I said in my Logan review (and indeed has been said a million times before), the X-Men are amoungst Marvel’s more enduring franchises – certainly in cinema – because of just how relatable their struggle is. Feared and hated by society for being born different, take away the mutant ‘X-Gene’ and, sadly, there are a hell of a lot of people who know exactly how that feels. When the first X-Men films came out in early 00s, it was perhaps the movie’s young gay fans who found the story especially relevant (there is even a ‘coming out’ scene in X2). Like the mutants, as the LGBT community became more visible and strove for equality at the turn of the century, a spiteful opposition reared its ugly head simultaneously.
Despite some progress over the years, that highly politicised fear of ‘the other’ (be it sexual orientation, gender identity, race, or anything else) is just as rampant today as it ever has been.
Yet through all the bigotry and discrimination, the core theme of the X-Men is hope. Charles Xavier and his students always cling on to a belief that someday mutants and the rest of humanity will coexist peacefully and prosper togther. It’s been a long time since the first X-Men comic in 1963 and we don’t seem to have arrived at the point yet, but they still believe by gosh, because… well, they have to.
And, I guess, so do we.
In the recent Avengers-esque flashy blockbusters however, it could be easy to miss that core principle between all the colourful explosions and “ohh it’s her from that show” cameos (excluding some powerful scenes from Michael Fassbender’s Magneto in X-Men: Apocalypse).
Which means a show like The Gifted makes perfect sense – a focused reminder of exactly what the mutants are afraid of, and why we should care.
The Gifted starts by introducing us to the Strucker family. The dad, Reed, works as a district attorney who specialises in prosecuting mutants (because being a mutant is basically illegal now). He’s starts off as a bit of a scumbag, and I’m told that most of his scenes were actually reshot to make him more likeable, so I can only image how bad he was originally. Still, Reed and his nurse wife Caitlin enjoy a nice cosy life off the back of his general douchebagery – until a major plot twist…
After being tormented by some bullies at the school dance, teenager Andy Strucker explodes with rage, amplified by his newly realised mutant ability to cause earthquakes whenever he gets mad. As the school begins to collapse and probably moments away from being crushed, big sis Lauren creates a force field with her own mutant abilities to protect her brother and the other students.
That’s right – the Strucker kids are mutants.
Back home, Sentinel Services (even I thought that name was a little on the nose) arrive to take Andy away. Mercifully, the Strucker parent’s love for their kids wins over their apathy for mutants, and together they make a break for it. In the process, the newly likeable dad Reed gets left behind. Now, the remaining Struckers and their new mutant friends must try to reunite and escape to safety.
And that’s the show.
The problem facing our protagonists is refreshingly simple: regroup and get the hell out of there. This explains the comparatively short season length. We know these characters don’t have much chance of toppling the Nazi-ish organisation that hunts them, so it really is just a case of survival. Other survival shows exists, sure, (The Walking Dead etc.) but they can (and invariably do) become incredibly formulaic by the time they reach their second season.
Indeed because the Strucker family’s story is so focused, The Gifted has tacked on a lot of stuff in the misguided attempt to give the show weight. At least five or six additional characters (who I couldn’t begin to name) have become increasingly prevalent in the last couple of episodes – though, I wonder if they should’ve been. While most of the extra mutant characters do serve some kind of purpose, I worry that they have been included to set up a franchise – which would really detract from what this show does well.
So with that in mind, I think The Gifted should be even shorter. This story could be told just as well in five exceptionally disciplined episodes. This is becoming increasingly common in British TV (though that may be partly down to budget constraints), with recent hits like Trust Me and Doctor Foster pulling off full and gripping stories in just four and five episodes respectively.
With (as of writing) six episodes left, I’m curious to see where the series will go next. I worry it could fall into the increasingly common trope of following the main cast move from point A to point B. The number of shows that use ‘the journey’ as the central progressing device for the majority of the season is exhausting, with even the most devout Walking Dead fans starting to question how interesting it can actually be. The Gifted must be careful not to fall down this very predictable hole.
Simplicity is key to the success of this series, but that’s not to say there aren’t some interesting things to explore. What happened to the X-Men? Characters in The Gifted allude to the fact that the X-Men have vanished (à la Logan), though the circumstances of their disappearance remains a mystery.
The Strucker family has quickly won me over, and I am totally invested in their plight. Issues of mutant healthcare and social security are painfully relevant and absolutely capture the ethos of the X-Men franchise, and the way the family is only now forced to confront these issues speaks to complacency we’re probably all guilty off from time to time. While I’ve not quite connected with the rest of the cast just yet, I genuinely care about this family and it’s refreshing to have a mutant story told on a smaller, more personal scale.
By downing the stakes from the fate of the world to the liberty of a family, The Gifted comes as a much more grounded look at what being a mutant in 2017 might feel like. Compared to earlier X-Men adaptations, the prejudices are much more open and society is even less compassionate. If the series is able to maintain this level of focus, the The Gifted will serve as an excellent addition to this ever-important story.
The Gifted airs in the UK on Wednesdays at 9PM on FOX.