Mutants. Specials. Whatever you call them, The Gifted are a familiar sight on our screens: it’s been almost 20 years since Bryan Singer first gave us the feature film X-Men, and the X franchise has expanded at an exponential rate since, particularly in recent years. While the big screen has twisted back and forth upon itself, the small screen has ranged across everything from Legion to the not entirely unrelated Inhumans. Now, the latest has arrived, and it’s telling that The Gifted’s main selling point isn’t the characters or the setting, but the man behind the camera: Bryan Singer himself.
There’s a trust that goes with the filmmaker’s involvement, and a confidence too: he’s clearly at home in the screen universe he created, and that translates brilliantly into an opening chase sequence in the rain that wastes no time in clunky exposition, instead launching straight into the action. The bad news is that things inevitably do have to slow down to fill in the blanks – and as soon as it switches tracks to plot introductions, The Gifted suffers from the fact that we’ve seen it all before.
The show is split into two strands, which naturally collide within the opening hour. There’s the Mutant Underground, a group of rogue mutants battling a government that has overstepped the line in monitoring mutants and keeping the public safe. They’re led by Marcos (Sean Teale), a guy who radiates power quite literally, and comprise of metal manipulator Lorna (Emma Dumont), super-agile John (Blair Redford), and newcomer to the gang Clarice (Jamie Chung), whose colourful hair marks her out as the most powerful one on the block: she can open portals between any two locations. Or, at least, she could, if she learned to control it properly.
That’s always been a running theme in X-Men – the parallel between coming of age and growing in power – and so it’s no surprise that our second narrative strand introduces a family. Meet The Struckers. Daddy Reed (Stephen Moyer) is a lawyer who spends his days prosecuting dangerous mutant, but it’s no spoiler to say this his kids are hiding gifts of their own: Andy (an excellent Percy Hynes White) is a boy with the power to tear things apart, while Lauren’s (Natalie Alyn Lind) protective streak manifests itself in an ability to produce what can best be described as bubble wrap in thin air.
There’s little to no explanation behind each of these powers, which is both a blessing and a curse. Creator Matt Nix writes the characters with the same confusion that would go with an uncertain teen finding their feet, while the Mutant Underground are too busy running to stop and explain everything. But if that pacing and withholding of information generates a decent level of intrigue and suspense, the action sequences that do come sometimes underwhelm, due to less than spectacular special effects – you wish, in some ways, that more time was spent fleshing the mutants’ powers out, particularly the bubble wrap and Marcus’ blinding inner light.
Part of the issue, though, is that it’s hard to surprise us anymore, after half a dozen X-Men films. Legion succeeded by stylising its own world and exploring themes of mental health, but The Gifted, broadcast on a mainstream network for a family audience, plays things more conventionally, at times ending up as a Heroes lite.
There is fun to be had, nonetheless. The cast help to bring some weight to the vaguely formulaic scenarios, with Amy Acker as Lauren and Andy’s mum providing the main emotional depth – Stephen Moyer’s Reed, sadly, isn’t given much space to explore his compromised position. And, by the time the two story halves collide, Nix quickly makes it clear that Clarice’s portals are as much a device that can separate loved ones as bring them together. Throw in a cheeky X-Men theme as a mobile ring tone and you have a show that comfortably slots into the existing franchise. If it continues to focus more on the smaller details as it goes on, rather than trying to expand to be something bigger, The Gifted could turn out to be an X-citing younger mutant cousin to Legion. Special? Not quite. But there’s promise here.
The Gifted premieres at 9pm on FOX UK on Sunday 8th October. Don’t have pay-TV? You can also watch it online legally live and on-demand through NOW TV. The VOD service gives streaming access to FOX UK, Sky Atlantic, Sky 1 and more, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with no contract.