How long has it been since we got a genuinely enjoyable superhero TV show?
Not Agents of SHIELD, certainly. Daredevil’s first season maybe, or Jessica Jones, but definitely not the Netflix Marvel series that followed them.
Maybe Arrow or the Flash, or Supergirl? If we ignore the earnest cheesiness a little. Not Legends of Tomorrow.
Let’s not even talk about Inhumans.
So it’s a pleasant surprise to learn that Fox’s The Gifted (not to be confused with Chris Evans film Gifted), a TV-set X-Men spin-off with hardly any of the characters made famous in the film adaptations, comics or even the 90s cartoon is actually a pretty decent effort.
More or less eschewing the canon of the X-Men world (and even Fox’s critically-acclaimed Dan Stevens-starring spin-off Legion, which has a similarly separate story) The Gifted focuses on a family called the Struckers, who have a pretty normal life. Dad’s a hotshot lawyer, Mum’s a Doctor, the daughter Lauren is popular and the son (Andrew) is not. Pretty average in every way.
That is, until the children’s (Natalie Alyn Lind and Percy Hynes White) mutant powers activate, causing havoc at a school dance and forcing them on the run from shadowy government forces – forces that it turns out their newly-penitent father (Stephen Moyer, joining the world his wife Anna Paquin inhabited in the X-Men movies) was working for before he realised his family’s secret…
Yes, this set-up is quite a lot like Heroes, the late-noughties NBC drama that similarly followed superpowered people on the run from men in black. But in fairness, Heroes itself was borrowing pretty liberally from 50-plus years of X-Men comics when it featured unlucky metahumans hated and feared by the normal populace, so we can’t blame The Gifted too much.
Especially when the end result is a fun, streamlined adventure that while a little cheesy (clichéd lines like “guys, we’ve got a situation” and on-the-nose allegorising when characters say “it gets better” abound) does a decent job at distilling the original spirit of the X-Men into a more personal, family story.
And for the devout X-Men fan, there are also plenty of callbacks to the world of the comics, from the subtle (the 90s X-Men cartoon theme song plays as a ringtone at one point) to the story-relevant, with several classic characters like Thunderbird, Polaris and Blink featuring as the mutant underground the Struckers have to work with to find safety.
It’s also hinted that the X-Men did exist in this reality at one time, before unexplained events either wiped them out or forced them into hiding, so it’s eminently possible that even more famous mutants could crop up at some point in the series. During one crucial scene there is a painting of a Wolverine, after all…
Now, I’m not saying The Gifted is a perfect series. It’s a little generic, a little cheesy and some of the characterisation feels a little off, especially when it comes to Moyer’s Reed Strucker, who is given something of a free pass for essentially facilitating the institutional persecution of an entire race and featured as the lead hero in a series that might do better to focus on the kids actually struggling with their newfound abilities.
(Frankly, he can’t help but remind of those Republicans in America who suddenly realise the benefits of healthcare when, and only when, a family member of theirs is taken deathly ill, and at least in the first episode he’s given far too easy a ride.)
“There’s nothing more important to me than my family,” he says pompously at one point to eager nods from his wife (Amy Acker) and children, weirdly centring the action around himself despite his essentially peripheral role to his kids’ more engaging issues.
Still, for now I’m willing to give The Gifted the benefit of the doubt. As an X-Men fan I enjoyed the little callbacks (yes, there’s a Stan Lee cameo), and as a TV fan I enjoyed the simple, stripped-back story. Hopefully even more X-citing events await in the weeks to come.
The Gifted airs on Fox UK at 9.00pm tonight (Sunday 8th October)