X-Men’s Brief TV Legacy: A Look back at THE GIFTED and forward with LEGION

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The X-Men franchise was rather late to TV. In 19 years FOX only produced two series, Legion and The Gifted. Legion is an innovative, challenging, even psychedelic examination of not just superheroes but our comprehension of reality itself. The Gifted is a traditional, largely uninspired translation of the X-Men to the small screen.
With Disney’s purchase of FOX finally official, it’s all but ensured both will end shortly. It’s already confirmed that the next season of Legion will be its last. The Gifted is the lowest-rated drama on FOX and certainly doesn’t have the lowest budget, so to see a Season 3 would be an even bigger shock now. For that reason, I thought now would be the best time to take a look at the two series and what they mean to the FOX franchise as a whole.
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The Gifted is a series that always had potential but mostly wasted it. The core trio of the Mutant Underground (Marcos Diaz/Eclipse, Clarice Wong/Blink, John Proudstar/Thunderbird) had great chemistry, and seeing the three young mutants try to lead and make life-and-death decisions usually kept me engaged as a viewer and recapper. The series’ error was not fully utilizing the characters they had from the comics. Instead, they created a new family of mutants, with only a passive connection to X-Men history, to compose the story around, which led to largely poor results.
A big reason comic book adaptations have a fairly good track record is the characters and stories are workshopped by every writer who touches them. That leaves TV and movie producers the opportunity to pick what worked and throw out what didn’t. The Gifted sacrificed that opportunity by deciding to focus on four new characters who had to be developed from scrap under tight network television deadlines.
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The show still could have worked. It’s sensible for a story about mutants to involve a family unit. But the Struckers were uninteresting if not outright unlikable. The parents, Reed and Caitlin, were likable enough leads. Reed showed genuine love and devotion to his family, as evidenced by his decision to run away from his job at Sentinel Sentinel services after he discovered his children were mutants. Caitlin was underwritten but still inherently compelling thanks to Amy Acker’s performance.
The kids were the problem and source of viewer frustration. Lauren was a boring teenage girl who lacked depth. The discovery of being a mutant is a natural connection to an adolescent maturing to adulthood. But that connection was rarely made, even though serialized storytelling is a perfect opportunity for the metaphor.
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Andy was even worse. A frequent source of mockery in my recaps, he goes from being a bullied kid to the kind of teenager who’s way too into mid-2000s Eminem, even dying his hair to a matching platinum blonde color. At the end of Season 1, he joins to Inner Circle (aka the Hellfire Club) and is fine with terrorism until the death of his mass-murdering girlfriend.
Yet the Struckers continued to take up the most screen time, sidelining far more interesting characters in the process. The writers never even seemed to consider changing course on that, never learning a lesson that should have been obvious by Day 2.
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Legion took a very different approach to very wonderful results. The show didn’t need to mine much from X-Men history. That was in part thanks to having as accomplished a storyteller as Noah Hawley at the helm. Convincing the creator of FX’s Fargo to run an X-series was FOX’s biggest get for the franchise in either television or film.
Legion also benefited from defining individuals who can warp the mind as essentially their own subspecies of mutants, an absolutely ingenious approach. Psychics can reach another plane of existence, so of course, they feel separated from anyone without similar access. Even with a rockier second season, Legion is one of the top dramas on television and will be greatly missed.
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As soon as announcements hit about Disney buying FOX, everyone knew the X-Men’s days on TV are numbered. We should consider The Gifted, in particular, as good as over. Season 2 of The Gifted ended with the death of the patriarch of the family and heroes reinvigorated to continue fighting the good fight. As far as unintended endings are concerned, it worked out pretty well. Characters were reunited, the most impending threat was neutralized, and it ended with a sense of hope rather than utter turmoil, as most network TV shows intend to.
Given the ratings and middling level of quality I’m not sure many will miss it, but it was an interesting experiment to adapt a world full of superpowers to the small screen and somehow make X-Men from across comics continuity feel natural in the same setting. The creator of the series was left with the scraps, using characters unseen across 10 X-Men movies (counting the upcoming Dark Phoenix), three Wolverine films, and two Deadpool outings. They did what they could with what they had, for better and worse.

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Harry Lloyd, recently cast as Charles Xavier in LEGION

Legion isn’t canceled after Season 3 because, according to Jeph Loeb, Executive VP of Marvel Television, the series was always intended to end there. I believe it since the stage was set at the end of the second season for a climactic showdown.
If anything, the Disney purchase might have benefited Legion by making executives more comfortable with the idea of letting Charles Xavier appear in the final season of Legion. Danny’s oft-alluded to birth father might have been forced to stay in the shadows were it not for this change in events, and I’m excited to see what Hawley does with such a complex character.
I find it fascinating that one X-series featured the son of Xavier, and the other the daughter of Magneto. I don’t believe for a microsecond that the two worlds overlap each other, but the option was there. The crises faced in Legion are so much greater than the mutant bigotry that The Gifted that they could have taken place in the same world but there was never a reason to bring it up.

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The Eternals created by Jack Kirby

A question worth asking is when we’ll see the X-Men on TV again. That obviously depends on when they debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will undoubtedly be through film. I’m less convinced than most that Marvel is in a rush to fit them into the MCU. Waiting builds anticipation, and Disney has already prepared Phase 4 which seems to place a lot of importance on The Eternals. Why not wait until their newer heroes (Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, etc.) run their course before introducing a franchise containing characters and concepts to fill its own universe?
If I’m right about that the wait for X-Men on TV will be even longer than expected, so we should enjoy what we have left. FOX waited far longer than it should have to bring such potent IP to the small screen, which cost them and us. But it’s interesting how we had two series that so starkly contrasted each other, which only goes to show how differently the X-Men can be used in live action television alone.

3 COMMENTS

  1. “A question worth asking is when we’ll see the X-Men on TV again”
    I’d say that with this level of quality for writing, production and acting, I sincerely hope not.
    If Marvel gives the helm to showrunners who don’t understand the source material, you get pretentious mindwank like Legion or cheap soap drama like the Gifted.
    Hopefully that will change with the Disneyification of those franchises.
    For the better or the worse, we will see…

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