X-Men’s most unique spin-off gets off to a good start.
Though I was curious when I first heard about The Gifted, I never got around to watching it as it aired. I don’t watch a lot of television, so even if a show piques my interest I tend to be late getting around to it. With that said, when the opportunity arose to review the series’s first season via its DVD release, I gladly took it. The show’s premise is perhaps the most unique out of all X-Men adaptations, so I figured it would be interesting if nothing else. So, how memorable is this new take on mutants? Is The Gifted good?
One of the main concerns I had when I first heard about The Gifted was that it was X-Men without the actual X-Men. As it turn out, that’s a recipe for greatness. By forgoing many of the franchise’s most central elements, the show is able to devote more time to the X-Men’s foundational metaphor: mutants as a stand-in for oppressed minority groups. This focus on bigotry and prejudice can be seen in many aspects of the show, including its choice of antagonists. Our protagonists aren’t facing off against the likes of Magneto or Apocalypse. Rather, almost all of the vilains are humans or mutants who have been forced to become pawns of humans.
The main antagonists in The Gifted are members of a shady government organization cleverly named the Sentinel Services. We don’t get to see much in the way of classic giant robot Sentinels, but there are some cool spider-like robots. With that said, having actual human agents as the organization’s main force is a smart move. It gives hatred a human face, and get to hear the agents’ personal justifications (warped as they are) for what they do. Their arguments are eerily similar to those of real life bigots, which makes The Gifted feel much more like actual social commentary than much of its source material does. There are some lines of dialogue and references throughout the series that get a bit clunky on this front, but as a whole the show does a good job with it.
Speaking of The Gifted’s handling of the mutant metaphor, one of its main strengths is that it doesn’t portray prejudice as something out of the ordinary and unique to just dramatic supervillains. In fact, not even the protagonists are without shortcomings here. The show revolves around the Strucker family: a husband (Reed) and wife (Caitlin) and two children (Lauren and Andy). They become allies of a loose organization called the Mutant Underground after it’s revealed that the Strucker children are mutants. Prior to that, though, Reed was an attourney who often helped to put mutants behind bars. One of the show’s most memorable moments is when Caitlin notes how one would like to think average citizens would be upset if they knew what sort of injustices mutants were facing. Unfortunately, however, they wouldn’t. She knows because she used to be one such average citizen, and she went through life unconcerned by mutant suffering prior to learning about her children’s powers.
As far as the rest of the season’s writing goes, it’s a bit hit or miss. There are a plethora of plot threads at play here, and while the show-runners do a good job juggling them, some plots are just more interesting than others. The ever-fracturing relationship between Eclipse and Polaris gets particularly old, as the same philosophical notes just keep getting hit over and over again. This feeling of repetitiveness is highly prevalent in other storylines throughout the season’s middle stretch as well. The last few episodes are likely the best, as their fast pacing and focus on mutant/human relations leave little room for halfhearted character drama. Given how good the show’s best moments are, it’s unfortunate that it also has such cheesy lows.
The show’s effects and score can also be inconsistent. Toward the beginning of the season some of the CGI effects comes across like awkward filters. Though mutant powers are certainly out of this (the viewer’s) world, it’s distracting when they look disingenuous to the show’s world as well. Also disappointing is how generic the music can get, particularly when vocal tracks are being played during scenes which are meant to be emotionally resonant. Many of the tracks chosen lack a sense of authenticity, and sometimes they don’t even fit the tone of the events at hand.
With all that said, there is some solid acting on The Gifted that needs to be acknowledged. The Stepford Cuckoos are perhaps its most striking figures, thanks largely to the work of actress Skyler Samuels, who portrays all three Cuckoos. Their common body movements and slight expression changes really sell both their hive mind identity and their charmingly stuck-up vibe. Coby Bell also does a good job portraying Agent Turner of the Sentinel Services, as he comes across as exactly the sort of well-intentioned and determined career man who can easily careen into committing serious ethical violations. The rest of the main cast members deliver more mixed performances, but they’re all at least solid.
Overall, The Gifted gets off to a good start with its first season. The mutant metaphor gets tackled more directly and deeply than in any other X-Man adaptation ever, and it’s largely done very well. The acting, effects, and score all have their ups and downs, but few details are ever outright terrible. Though the middle of the season drags on a bit, the solid start and excellent home stretch make up for it. I’ll definitely come back for season two.