As long as xenophobia feels like an immutable characteristic of humanity, the X-Men franchise will continue to resonate as allegory instead of mere fantasy. There’s certainly plenty of allegory in The Gifted, but aside from obviously paralleling bigoted “America First” insularity, the series offers little beyond serviceable performances and vapid cultural commentary.
Though The Gifted takes place in the X-Men universe, the series doesn’t feature any of its core team members. Earlier this year, Legion proved that such an approach can succeed by offering enough originality for audiences to forgive the absence of iconic heroes from the franchise, but The Gifted makes no such attempt. Instead, the show adopts the soapy style of a CW super series, down to its breakneck plot, static characters, and so-called gritty realism signaled by dimly lit action scenes in drab warehouses.
The Gifted draws its audience into the conflict between mutants and humans from the outside perspective of the Struckers, an apparently “normal” (and completely unremarkable) family. The father, Reed (Stephen Moyer), is a district attorney whose job entails prosecuting cases against mutants—and many of those cases are arbitrary, or exaggerated by a government systemically targeting “gifted” citizens. The show’s messaging isn’t exactly subtle: Jails are flooded with mutants, and a Mutant Underground shuttles those who are free toward safety south of the Mexican border.
Still, there doesn’t seem to be a cogent argument in The Gifted, just a proclivity to evoke current events, as if doing so can alone lend the series a sense of profundity. Reed and his wife, Kate (Amy Acker), instantly leave for Mexico when their children, Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Andy (Percy Hynes White), manifest mutant abilities. The government agency tracking the newly minted mutants is known for making their kind disappear, which explains the family’s haste, but a touch of introspection is still missed here, as the parents appear uninclined to reevaluate prejudices they either endorsed or appeased in the time before their own children joined society’s underclass.
As such, it’s especially shameless how Reed goes about enlisting the Mutant Underground to help his family. As he bribes them with information about Polaris (Emma Dumont), a currently incarcerated mutant, it’s too easy to feel schadenfreude instead of sympathy for the paterfamilias, which doesn’t appear to be the show’s intention. He never reflects on his complicity in the family’s new oppression, only that he can’t let his own children suffer the same fate he’s wrought on others. He’s a man fleeing a fire he helped stoke.
The Mutant Underground is a rag-tag bunch with very little brand recognition beyond Blink (Jamie Chung), who appeared in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The others are a string of blandly attractive soap-opera types, discernable by their various powers—Thunderbird (Blair Redford) is a superhuman athlete, Eclipse (Sean Teale) shoots sunbeams from his hands, and Polaris controls metal—but missing the idiosyncratic personalities of their big-screen counterparts. In the X-Men films, Wolverine is memorable for both his gruff interior and deadly exterior, and the kindly demeanor of Professor X underscores his super-powered empathy. The mutants in The Gifted, by contrast, aren’t afforded such dimensions, and as such they still fail to make an impression.
Andy’s power is revealed when, fending off bullies at a school dance, his fit of rage and fear summons a literal earthquake which nearly levels the entire school. Despite being a relatively formulaic action scene, the reveal is the sole memorable moment in The Gifted’s pilot, as the episode squanders ample opportunity to illustrate a unique dynamic within the Strucker family. The story of the Struckers has no obvious precedent in comic-book television, and though their relationships seem rich for exploration, the series instead rushes headlong into the broad conflict between mutants and humans.
We know more about what Andy and Lauren can do than how they feel, or who they are, which feels counterintuitive. The series supposedly sympathizes with mutants viewed by the world as less than human, but it appears more interested in mutant powers than the mutants themselves. The first episode, predictably, ends with a cliffhanger, and the narrative equivalent of clickbait is fitting for a series that brushes up against commentary without actually saying anything. The mutants in The Gifted champion the abnormal, the different, and the weird, but the series itself is none of those things.