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Relax, Nerds: 'The Gifted' Knows What It's Doing

"I'm tellin' you, that fish was yay big!": Teen Mutant Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) prepares to bend air like Beckham in <em>The Gifted.</em>
Eliza Morse
"I'm tellin' you, that fish was yay big!": Teen Mutant Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) prepares to bend air like Beckham in The Gifted.

After Friday night's two-hour premiere of Marvel's Inhumans on ABC, you can forgive us Marvel nerds for feeling a bit flinchy. That show's a great big slab of cheese — some of the runniest and stinkiest around — so if some of us approach the premiere of FOX's mutant-themed series The Gifted by adopting a kind of collective defensive crouch, understand that it's warranted.

Nerds of the world, I'm here to tell you: You can unclench.

There's a scene in a dive bar near the midpoint of the pilot episode, which premieres Monday night. It's a meeting between two characters who don't trust one another, for very good reasons.

That scene is when you'll know that the people behind The Gifted know exactly what they're doing — that they've mapped out their corner of the Marvel universe, they've found the tone they're going for, and they're careful not to push things too hard.

It has nothing to do with what happens in the scene, really. Or how it's shot, or how well the actors sell the conflict, and set the stakes.

It's the music in the background, the song that plays under the conversation between Stephen Moyer's Reed and Sean Teale's Marcos.

It's The Animals — their cover of a song first recorded by Nina Simone, which they rode up the charts in 1965:

I'm just a soul whose intentions are good

Oh lord, please don't let me be misunderstood

Marvel's mutant universe doesn't have an official theme song, of course. But if it did, it'd be that one. That chorus distills the narrative drive of every mutant who's ever adopted a hokey codename since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first unleashed The X-Men #1 on an unsuspecting world in 1963: Always wanting to fit in, to do good, to help, only to be persecuted, feared and hunted.

It's more than a nice touch; it's emblematic.

And — importantly, crucially — it's just ... there. In the background, waiting for you to notice it, but never calling attention to itself, never getting in the way. (The same can't be said for the requisite Stan Lee cameo, which takes it sweet time.)

The Gifted's pilot is filled with moments like that one — scenes that, if played bigger or more earnestly, would oversalt the stew. Dialogue that shouldn't work, does, because actors like Teale and Emma Dane (as Lorna) know that they can keep their feet off the accelerator, and let a sardonic smirk do the work instead.

The premise is simple, but no less grabby: A man who prosecutes mutants for a living (Moyer) discovers that his own son and daughter (Percy Hynes White and Natalie Alyn Lind, respectively) are mutants. He and his wife (the great and good Amy Acker) go on the run, joining up with an underground network of mutants led by Teale.

Directed by Bryan Singer, who knows his way around this universe (we're all just going to forget X-Men: Apocalypse happened, right?), Monday's pilot is served enormously by how well-executed its special effects prove to be, and — more importantly — how seamlessly they're integrated into the world of the show. They work to drive the story, but they get out of the way. (A scene involving some mutant-chasing sentinel-spiders is gratifyingly creepy, because the effects department invests them with a cold, arachnid malice.)

There's still work to be done, here. Acker is just too good and smart and funny an actor to stay relegated to the Worried-Mom role she assumes in this episode. And the show's decision to add still yet another Surly Teen (White's Andy) to a television landscape already clotted with them is a bit of a head-scratcher, but Lind's compassionate performance as his sister will hopefully work to modulate the moping.

But those are nitpicks: The Giftedis off to a hugely promising start, and well worth watching. (Especially if you're a member of the production team over at ABC's Inhumans, because, again: Hoo boy.)

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.