How best to frame Fox’s The Gifted, the latest TV show based on a Marvel comic, and specifically mutants from the X-Men corner of the Marvel Universe? How about this:
There’s a pretty wide continuum of both quality and ambition among the current wave of comic book TV shows, and The Gifted falls pretty squarely in the middle. Based on tonight’s pilot episode (the only one Fox screened for critics), it gets the basics down and doesn’t try to deliver more than what you might expect, for better or worse.
Written by Burn Notice creator Matt Nix, with a pilot directed by Bryan Singer, The Gifted take place in the same fictional universe as the X-Men films directed by Singer and others. But just as the Marvel Netflix shows take place in the same reality as the Avengers movies, but on a much smaller scale, The Gifted focuses on mutants who are too obscure to attract the attention of Professor X and friends.
The pilot introduces two sets of characters who eventually intersect. One is a group of young mutants — mostly X-Men C-listers like superstrong tracker Thunderbird (Blair Redford), teleporter Blink (Jamie Chung), mistress of magnetism Polaris (Emma Dumont), plus an original character, Eclipse (Sean Teale) who can… weld things, I think? — trying to live off the grid in a climate of anti-mutant hysteria where they have no rights and can be locked away forever without cause. The other is the Strucker family(*), led by parents Reed (Stephen Moyer) and Caitlin (Amy Acker), plus teenagers Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Andy (Percy Hynes White). Reed is a prosecutor who specializes in mutant cases, which makes it karmically fitting when he discovers that his kids are both mutants — their powers, like Eclipse’s, are still somewhat sketchily defined, but he has telekinetic abilities and she can make shields out of thin air — and has to go on the run with them.
(*) The Struckers, like Quicksilver, are among the few Marvel characters whose film rights simultaneously belong to both Fox, which has all the X-Men and related properties, and Marvel itself. So one version was featured in Avengers: Age of Ultron, with Thomas Kretschmann playing a more traditionally evil version of the family patriarch Wolfgang, while The Gifted has Moyer as this cuddlier, Americanized guy.
The aesthetic is the glum, muted one of Singer’s first few X-Men films, but on a TV budget: instead of 20-foot-tall robot Sentinels designed to kill mutants, there’s a government mutant-hunting agency called Sentinel Services, represented by Burn Notice vet Coby Bell’s Jace Turner. Even with Singer behind the camera, it doesn’t look that much different from what the Syfy version of it would be if shot in Vancouver with lesser-known actors than Moyer and Acker.
For that matter, casting two fan favorites (Moyer from True Blood, Acker from… well, everything, but most notably Angel and Person of Interest) as the concerned parents on a show where everyone else has powers and gets to do badass things seems a poor use of resources. I imagine we’ll eventually get to see Caitlin toting guns or using martial arts or in some other way playing fierce mama bear, but the focus is on her kids, and on the mutant Underground Railroad, and the most interesting performance from either group comes from Bunheads alum Dumont, who carries herself like someone who has been fundamentally changed in ways that go beyond having magnetic powers, but whom the pilot largely sidelines.
Reviewing this only a few days after Inhumans debuted has me worried that I’m lowering the bar too much, but The Gifted so far is… fine. It’s exactly what you think it’s going to be, presented competently (Nix has been working in genre TV long enough to know how to keep these things moving along), with enough good actors to be encouraging, even if most of them aren’t being used to full potential just yet. Legion, set in an even more remote corner of the X-universe, showed just how surprising and strange and memorable a show can be from related source material. The Gifted is aiming for something vastly more conventional, and doing it decently. Considering how poorly this fall’s other Marvel show turned out, I’ll take it.