It’s easy to get lost in the swell of superhero entertainment. Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok both come out next month. The new trailer for Black Panther just dropped last week. A slew of superhero television shows, including The Defenders, The Tick, Inhumans, Runaways, and The Punisher, have recently debuted or are set to debut later this year, joining the ranks of existing series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Legion, Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash, and Marvel’s ever-growing stable of Netflix series.
The thought of adding another entry to such a crowded docket feels more like a taunt than a treat. But somehow, despite the ongoing deluge of capes and cowls, one new series this fall is poised to make you want more superhero shows just like it.
It’s The Gifted, which debuted earlier this month on Fox.
The show — a drama set in the X-Men’s mutant universe where the X-Men might not exist and anti-mutant sentiment is high— is an on-the-run thriller with a big, bad government that wants to hunt down these special humans. Each episode of the show’s young first season (three episodes have aired so far) has been equal parts mutant melodrama and family soap opera, with savvy and relatively impressive special effects. (Television superhero shows aren’t exactly well-known for their dazzle.)
But the best thing about the show is how well it translates and stays true to the heart of the X-Men.
The Gifted, like all the best X-Men stories, understands that the X-Men aren’t celebrity superheroes
The Gifted’s premise is divided into two main plots.
The first plot involves a ragtag group of mutants on the run from the government. John Proudstar, a.k.a. Thunderbird (Blair Redford), is a mutant with superhuman agility and strength with superhuman senses. He leads a group whose core members include teleporter Clarice Fong, a.k.a. Blink (Jamie Chung); mistress of magnetism Lorna Dane, a.k.a. Polaris (Emma Dumont); and photon-manipulating Marcos Diaz a.k.a. Eclipse (Sean Teale). The team’s main objective is to house and protect mutants who are on the run.
The second plot centers on the Strucker family, an initially normal-seeming bunch headed up by dad Reed (Stephen Moyer) and mom Caitlin (Kate) (Amy Acker). However, the Struckers’ lives become anything but ordinary when siblings Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Andy (Percy Hynes White) find out they’re mutants.
These two stories collide when Kate and Andy experience their mutant awakenings in the show’s first episode and seek help from Thunderbird’s mutant underground railroad. The twist is that their father, Reed, works a prosecutor who specializes in jailing mutants, making a living by detailing the threats that mutants present to society. And he had no idea his children were mutants.
In each episode, there’s tension not just between mutants and the various members of the Strucker family, but also with Reed’s conscience and whether he’ll turn on the people helping his family, in order to cut a deal with the government in hopes it’ll spare his family.
Since the X-Men aren’t present in this world, in the public’s eye, all mutants, even if they’re not displaying mutant powers, are dangerous. And this bleak view of humanity and its warts are what makes The Gifted’s premise such a strong addition to the X-Men universe.
Thunderbird’s team knows just how bad humans can be. The Strucker family is just learning. And the show becomes a push and pull between two ideologies, with the Struckers slowly realizing what it’s like to be outsiders.
Last year, I had the opportunity to speak to Chris Claremont, a comic book writer who, with artists John Byrne and Dave Cockrum, is considered to be part of the team that breathed new life into the X-Men in the ’70s and ’80s and turned them into the pop culture force they are today. Claremont told me that what was most crucial to the X-Men was the idea that they were outsiders.
“The one core difference that made the X-universe unique, compared to the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and all of the rest of the Marvel universe, is that they were totally clandestine. People were scared because they weren't a public team,” Claremont said. “They were a shadow team. There were only a few of them, comparatively speaking. If you take that away, then they are no different than any other team.”
This idea is key to The Gifted. The reason it feels so different from many other superhero shows stems from the role that fear plays in its story; no one is saving the day in one fell swoop. And even though there are acts of heroism — like Thunderbird and Eclipse rescuing the Struckers in the third episode — any small miracles that would otherwise inspire hope and optimism are swallowed up by the relentlessness and influence of a government that’s intent on rounding up and getting rid of mutants. It’s compelling because it’s not a superhero story, but rather a survival story about beings who happen to have superpowers.
But the show also smartly tweaks the classic X-Men story by changing its point of view
In addition to capturing the fear and loathing of the X-universe, The Gifted incorporates a lot of other classic X-Men elements: Family — both the one you’re born into and the one you choose — is a major theme. So is the question of who helps the helpless. Villains are omnipresent and constantly spying, as the government’s Sentinel program sees and hears almost everything.
When you look at major X-Men stories like God Loves, Man Kills or the crossover event known as The Mutant Massacre, they involve the deaths of innocent people who’ve been marginalized by society. In God Loves, Man Kills, two innocent mutant children are slaughtered by religious zealots. In The Mutant Massacre, a group of mutants shunned by society are living in sewers, where a group of villains named the Marauders kill them. It’s up to the X-Men, who themselves are hated by society, to help these marginalized groups.
Those stories are largely told through the X-Men’s point of view. The X-Men must help the helpless. They must protect the weak. They become symbols of hope and perseverance. And they rise above the ignorance they’re greeted with.
The Gifted flips this concept by eliminating the X-Men and operating from the perspective of those who would typically need the X-Men’s help.
Familiar X-Men — Cyclops, Storm, Jean Grey, Wolverine, and friends — don’t officially exist in this universe (though if The Gifted becomes a huge hit, we might see a cameo or two). That means there aren’t a bunch of well-known heroes standing by to save the day. Also gone are larger-than-life villains like Magneto or Mr. Sinister. Thunderbird’s team of mutants are more of the average variety; some of them are still figuring out their powers, and they aren’t anywhere near as powerful or savvy as the X-Men.
Basically, there’s no distinct “superhero” team element in the show.
As a result, The Gifted focuses on what it’s like to be on the run from the government, rather than what it’s like to save the day. The show doesn’t spend a lot of time debating the philosophical future of mutantkind or proselytizing about saving the world. Instead, it’s a more intimate, personal story.
This opens up several opportunities that allow viewers to see what discrimination looks like not from a superhero’s perspective — which extends above and beyond human ignorance — but from a more grounded, human one. In episode three, for example, the Struckers visited Kate’s brother Danny, only to find out — once he learns that his niece and nephew are mutants — that his anti-mutant sentiment is stronger than blood.
The Gifted is more about uncertainty and fright than action and flash, since it centers on characters who are just trying to live to see another day. In other words, it’s found a unique, television-friendly story in a universe that’s already told many. And that in itself has made the show worth watching.