WARNING: This review contains spoilers for the series premiere of The Gifted, which debuts Monday, Oct. 2, on Fox.
It's unfortunate that Fox chose to promote The Gifted last week with the release of the first six minutes of the premiere, as they're perhaps also the worst six minutes. The rest of the episode is so much stronger.
Those opening moments drop viewers into the world of the new X-Men drama, where Blink (played by Jamie Chung), newly escaped from a mutant detention center, flees police, who then face off against her saviors, three members of the Mutant Underground. The scenes are fast-paced, punctuated by gunfire and displays of mutant powers: Blink's teleportation, Thunderbird's vague tracking abilities, Polaris' manipulation of magnetism, and Eclipse's ... flashlight hand? It's intended to be flashy and exciting, but it's hampered by wooden dialogue and acting.
The adult mutants are undoubtedly a large part of the draw for X-Men fans, who will scour The Gifted for connections to Fox's film franchise and for familiar characters from Marvel Comics history. However, neither they nor the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the X-Men are the most compelling elements of the pilot, directed by franchise veteran Bryan Singer. It's the two kids at the center of what's very much a family drama, only with superpowers and a slightly dystopian setting. (Can a setting be "slightly dystopian"? The Gifted suggests the answer is yes.)
The premise is straightforward: In a United States that's maybe not quite present-day but, say, six months from now, it's not illegal to be a mutant. It is, however, against the law to use mutant powers in public. Those who do are rounded up by Sentinel Services and placed in a mutant detention center, often never to be seen again. Against that backdrop, The Gifted introduces the Struckers, an Atlanta family who would otherwise be considered "average," except that father Reed (played by Stephen Moyer) is a district attorney who prosecutes cases against mutants. When their two teenage children are revealed to be mutants following a Carrie-esque incident at a school dance, the lives of the Struckers are turned upside down as they're forced to go on the run from the government and turn to the Mutant Underground for help.
Those are the broad strokes, familiar to anyone who's read an X-Men comic or watched an X-Men movie. But the strength of the pilot, written by series creator Matt Nix (Burn Notice), is in the finer details, namely in the performances of fan favorite Amy Acker (Angel, Person of Interest) as mother Caitlin Strucker, and Natalie Alyn Lind and Percy Hynes White as teens Lauren and Andy Strucker. With Moyer every bit as stoic as he was on True Blood (he's basically Bill, only without the painful Southern drawl), much of the emotional weight of the family scenes falls upon the other three actors, and they prove themselves capable of bearing it.
While much of the focus is on bullied son Andy, who inadvertently manifests his destructive powers while being assaulted by his tormentors at the dance, Lauren is just as interesting: She discovered her own abilities months earlier, but kept them secret from everyone until she was forced to protect herself from falling debris and save her brother. And when a crying Andy tries to explain what happened to their disbelieving mother, Lauren intercedes on his behalf, making the "coming out" metaphor all the more apparent. "Mom, accept it," she says matter-of-factly. "Andy is a mutant." Later, she assumes the role of mentor, offering to impart her limited knowledge to her potentially more powerful younger brother.
If Acker has a mutant ability, it's emoting. As she's demonstrated in role after role over the past two decades (many of which were far too limited, or in projects too short-lived), it's that she can convey more with a teary-eyed look than many of her co-stars do with several lines of dialogue. In the Gifted pilot, titled "eXposed" (an unfortunate theme that continues with later episode titles "rX" and "eXodus"), Acker is relegated to "concerned parent," more so than Moyer, whose Reed is allowed to display another facet, in his scenes talking with co-workers, interrogating the imprisoned Polaris and negotiating with Eclipse from the Mutant Underground. Hopefully subsequent episodes will allow her to be more than the weepy mother and comforting wife.
However, despite the appearance of Moyer and Acker at the top of the credits, The Gifted isn't really about them -- or, at least it shouldn't be. The premiere is at its best when Lind and White are on screen, whether it's bickering with each other as siblings do, or unleashing their powers to defend their family and newfound mutant allies against the threat of Sentinel Services. Although the Mutant Underground and government agents are necessary to fill out this new yet familiar world, and to propel the story forward, the plight of the Strucker children is more intriguing than any robotic Sentinel spider (which, mind you, are impressive, given a television budget) or Marvel Comics Easter egg.
Of course, if the Struckers themselves aren't enough to keep Marvel fans coming back week after week (really, they should be), then certainly the promise of an answer the mysterious 9/11-type event tied to the disappearance of the X-Men and Magneto's Brotherhood, will be.
Airing Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox, The Gifted stars Stephen Moyer as Reed Strucker, Amy Acker as Caitlin Strucker, Sean Teale as Marcos Diaz/Eclipse, Coby Bell as Jace Turner, Emma Dumont cast as Lorna Dane/Polaris, Jamie Chung as Blink/Clarice Fong and Blair Redford as John Proudstar/Thunderbird, Natalie Alyn Lind as Lauren Strucker and Percy Hynes White as Andy Strucker.