Fox’s “The Gifted” throws viewers into the dystopian world of the (erstwhile) X-Men. Humans aren’t at outright war with mutants, but anyone with too expressive an X-gene can look forward to a visit from Mutant Homeland Security (a.k.a. Sentinel Services).
They face the same oppression and distrust that (insert your favorite marginalized group) does. The show’s place in that ever-shifting X-Men universe timeline is vague. The extremely uneasy coexistence between humans and mutants means it most likely fits in before “Days of Future Past” or “Logan.”
Most of the plot revolves around Reed and Caitlin Strucker (Stephen Moyer and Amy Acker) and their two mutant children (Natalie Alyn Lind and Percy Hynes White) as they attempt to evade a Sentinel Services manhunt led by Jace Turner (Coby Bell). The Struckers (yes, that name sounds familiar) find themselves under the wing of the Mutant Underground, a haven for mutants hiding from Sentinel Services.
Fox dropped “The Gifted” into a broadcast pool not exactly teeming with exceptional comic book television, not to mention an already-saturated genre. ABC has or had its Marvel Cinematic Universe shows, “Agents of SHIELD,” “Inhumans,” and the late “Agent Carter.” The CW has its ever-expanding Arrowverse, led by “Arrow” and “The Flash.” Fox also airs DC’s “Gotham.”
Several of these shows are entertaining; none are great TV. The line between fun or serious and corny or downright dumb is quite thin for comic book shows already. The demands of network TV, between schedule changes, ratings grabs, and content restrictions, only make walking that line harder.
Fortunately, “The Gifted” eschews typical network conventions and is better for it. It exists in a dystopian near-future and has, to its credit, stayed there. A show like this typically features a case-of-the-week format to grab viewers, yet “The Gifted” started and sticks with a serialized story. There hasn’t been an obvious ratings ploy, either through some needless character arc, annoying C-story, or stupid relationship. Very few character decisions happen for the sake of a plot contrivance; the kids especially have never acted too recklessly nor outrageously brave.
It could easily play up the social commentary, an almost unavoidable aspect of any X-Men property, for drama’s sake. So far “The Gifted” hasn’t leaned too heavily on it (though a virulently anti-mutant Trumpish president seems inevitable).
The ten-episode first season, a “prestige TV” trend, certainly helps. It allows for a more focused narrative and prevents episode-filling bloat. The episode limit also presumably gives “The Gifted” budget for impressive visual effects, a genre necessity that often distracts on TV rather than complements.
The first season’s brevity keeps the hand-holding to a minimum as well, both for the characters and viewers. Casual X-Men or superhero fans may not recognize any of the characters or fully understand their powers, but they don’t need to. It helps the audience feel as lost as some of the characters.
“Burn Notice” creator Matt Nix helms “The Gifted” and his love of the source material shows. As he explained to Collider, he wanted a “grounded” story about mutants, describing it as “Running on Empty” with mutants. So far, he’s managed to make just that. It’s a show crafted with care, not just a lazy means of cashing in on a license (looking at you, “Inhumans”).
Networks will always struggle to produce better comic book shows than cable or Netflix, thanks to lowered content restrictions and less emphasis on chasing an audience. “The Gifted” hasn’t reached the levels of “Legion” or “Daredevil.” But it comes close, partly by emulating its “prestige TV” cousins. And it proves that good superhero TV doesn’t have to lurk in the realm of streaming or cable. Matt Nix and co. are clearly telling the story that they want. The show’s quality reflects that.