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REVIEW: THE GIFTED Suffers Under the ‘Marvel Property’ Yoke

By on September 6, 2017

THE GIFTED: L-R: Stephen Moyer and Amy Acker in THE GIFTED Co. Cr: Ryan Green/FOX

The Gifted is coming to FOX this fall, and at first glance this new series dutifully ticks all the boxes for what a Marvel TV series ought to be.

At its heart is the Strucker family, who are learning to deal with the fact not one but both of their children are ‘muties’ — or ‘persons of genetic difference’ as it is more tactfully put at one point in the pilot episode.

The Struckers (Mom and Dad are played by Amy Acker and Stephen Moyer) are pretty much a modern suburban family with the exception of Dad, Reed, who works for a government agency responsible for incarcerating potentially violent mutants — or ‘keeping us safe’ as it is more tactfully put. (There are many moments where things are more tactfully put on this show than are really necessary, but more on that in a little bit.) Reed doesn’t actually get his hands dirty, and his job revolves around prosecuting those detainees found guilty of violent behavior, with the role of actually pursuing and rounding up undesirables falling to the ominous sounding Sentinel Services.

Reed’s discovery that his children are now persons of interest to the government puts him at immediate odds with his employers, and the family soon find themselves on the run from those they once viewed as the good guys.

Enter the mutant underground, along with Eclipse, Blink, Polaris, Thunderbird and a whole host of other X-Men Universe mutants you probably won’t recognize unless you’re an ardent comic book fan. The underground is at first naturally suspicious of the Struckers. After all, just yesterday, Reed helped put one of their own behind bars. However, after some persuasion they feel compelled to help this struggling family find refuge in return for Reed sharing some insider intel on his government buddies, and so a show is born.

In recent comments to Comic Book Resources, Marvel chief Jeph Loeb discussed the things that are key ingredients in a Marvel show. “People rising up against adversity, real emotion, a strong female character, but also a strong sense of family and questions of identity,” Loeb listed. (Just one strong female character?) The Gifted certainly aims to hit all of those targets, and does an admirable job in several respects. Seasoned actors Acker and Moyer do the heavy lifting where most of the emotional beats are concerned, while the younger cast (Percy Hynes White as Andy Strucker and Natalie Alyn Lind as Lauren Strucker), take the audience on a journey of discovery, fear, and joy as they unleash and share their secret abilities for the first time.

However with so many Marvel ingredient boxes to tick, the show regrettably fails in other key areas.

There is a moment early in the pilot episode where Moyer and Acker’s Reed and Caitlin sit down for a face to face with the school principal for what they hope will be a serious discussion about their son being bullied at school. However the principal is distracted and doesn’t seem to fully grasp the Strucker’s concerns. We watch as Reed stiffens, his face slowly turning stony and cold, and we think to ourselves: this is it! This is the moment we’ll catch a glimpse of this guy’s scary inner beast, and we’ll know that under the Dad persona, there’s a guy you probably shouldn’t mess with.

But no, Reed merely threatens to sue the principal, and the scene ends shortly thereafter, robbing the audience of what could have been a darkly thrilling moment. And that’s the problem with The Gifted in a nut shell. Moments which could be used to show something meaningful, scary, or surprising are squandered in favor of corny dialogue, family moments and tactful explanations. It’s as if the show is hyper aware its ‘young man struggles with identity issues’ and ‘running from a hostile government’ motifs could be seen as metaphors for anything from sexual orientation to immigration to Trump’s paranoia-stricken America, and is tripping over itself in attempts to get its response just right.

 

THE GIFTED: L-R: Amy Acker, Natalie Alyn Lind and Percy Hynes White in THE GIFTED
Co. Cr: Ryan Green/FOX

What made The Gifted a huge draw for many genre fans was the addition of both Moyer and Acker to the series. In True Blood and Person of Interest both actors excelled at playing larger than life, dangerous, intriguing and unpredictable characters. As suburban Atlanta parents, they are visibly diminished, reduced to sitting on the sidelines while others get to live in those moments instead. Granted, in The Gifted, both actors are taking on the blander roles of parents with busy professional lives and teenage children in tow, and as such we’re not likely to see flashes of Root or Bill Compton on display. However, but that begs the inevitable question. Why own a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport if your intention is to use it for the daily school run?

But it’s not just the leads who are under-utilized. The show doesn’t take risks with any of its characters, or setting, or story, and we’re left with the disappointed realization that despite a mention here and there, this isn’t really the X-Men universe we thought we were getting. Pilots are often highly polished, deeply emotional hooks designed to make us feel disturbed, elated, frightened, angry, or all of the above — to the degree we can’t bear to miss the next episode. But while it certainly tries, The Gifted fails in eliciting those stronger feelings, ultimately committing the cardinal sin of being meh. It doesn’t have the outrageous colorful flair of FX’s X-Men Universe Legion. Nor does it contain the creative story beats of ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, or the freshness of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, Daredevil et al. Not even a cameo by the ubiquitous Stan Lee elicits more than an eyebrow raise.

However, where the show is reminiscent of another series is in its tonal similarity to NBC’s Heroes. Just not season one Heroes with Sylar and Peter and Hiro. More like Heroes Reborn, with its worn out story-lines, cliched characters and underwhelming turns of events. We’ve been here before, both back in 2006 when Loeb came on board as writer and co-executive producer, and the idea of ordinary people discovering extraordinary powers and going on the run was hot, and in 2015, when Heroes Reborn proved definitively it was not.

Overall, FOX’s latest series tries a little too hard to fit a dutiful but complex Marvel mold at the expense of presenting a creative, fresh and intriguing hour of TV. Surely a show shouldn’t feel this tired right out of the starting gate?

ScreenSpy Score: C

The Gifted airs Monday, Oct. 2 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.

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