Which is the less bad show? ‘Black Lightning’ vs. ‘The Gifted’ (TV commentary)

In the tradition of legendary matchups such as “The Cape” vs. “No Ordinary Family,” “Almost Human” vs. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Riverdale” vs. “Supergirl,” I ask the question on the mind of every fan of middle-of-the-road superhero television: Which is the less bad show – The CW’s “Black Lightning” or Fox’s “The Gifted?” Rather than go by gut feeling, let’s break down these sophomore sci-fi series by category.

MYTHOLOGY

“The Gifted” is part of the “X-Men” Cinematic Universe, and like the saga’s other TV show, “Legion,” its relationship to the movies is vague and strange. It’s set in the near future when humans and mutants fight in the streets and are on the brink of all-out civil war; Professor Xavier is dead and the time of mutual tolerance has passed. This takes some of the urgency out of the 1980s-set films like “Apocalypse” and the upcoming “Dark Phoenix,” since we know a crappy future is on the horizon.

“Black Lightning,” created in the 1970s when DC was playing catch-up to Marvel’s wave of black superheroes like Luke Cage, Black Panther and Blade obviously falls short when comparing the source material. The show is nominally set in the CW DC Universe, but it has yet to rub shoulders with the others. A crossover with something like “Supergirl” would be weird, because “BL” feels more grounded. Still, it can’t compete with the mythological weight of the “X-Men” saga.

Advantage: “The Gifted”

OPENING LOGO

Both shows are guilty of falling into the unfortunate network TV trend of having a little introductory snippet rather than full-fledged credits with a theme song, which is a shame because both have casts of superheroes. “Black Lightning’s” intro features one song lyric — “Last night I saw a superhero/He was black/He said, “This is for the street”/“Black Lightning’s back” — then a flash of lightning and the logo. “The Gifted” features its logo floating in a field of computer bytes or strands of DNA or something.

Advantage: “Black Lightning”

HEROES

Cress Williams plays Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce with natural charm. By day, he’s the principal we wish we had; by night, he’s the superhero we’d want patrolling our streets. His oldest daughter is Anissa (Nafessa Williams), who is suddenly known as Thunder when the closed captioning, and later the Freeland media, start calling her that. When the duo fights crime together, Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” plays in my head, but as much as this show slathers on background tunes with a trowel, it hasn’t used that obvious accompaniment. Jefferson’s youngest daughter is Jennifer (China Anne McClain), who – if the show follows comic lore – will be simply known as Lightning (even though she is also, of course, black). Yeah, that’s not confusing at all.

“The Gifted’s” lineup is a hodgepodge of dour mutants with powers that don’t resonate in this age where there’s a superhero on every corner. Either that or the power is worth a snicker, like the ability to turn stuff inside out or scream really loud. It hurts that none of them get to be heroes; they only get to run from the villains. The de facto lead is Polaris, played by Emma Dumont with none of her “Bunheads” wit or endearing vulnerability. She just broods. “Angel’s” Amy Acker and “True Blood’s” Stephen Moyer, as the Strucker parents, elevate the material the way a person of reasonable strength can elevate a cement block.

Advantage: “Black Lightning”

VILLAINS

“The Gifted’s” villains are the nebulously portrayed society that hates mutants. The outgrowths of that – a hate group here, a careerist newscaster there – are what you’d expect if you’ve read history books or watched the news. Still, it’s to “The Gifted’s” credit that it’s not black-and-white. Reeva (Grace Byers) is the leader of the well-funded militant mutants; when positioned against the tamer Mutant Underground, she seems villainous. But then Rebecca (Anjelica Bette Fellini), who seems like a sweet girl, slaughters a bunch of humans without any reason, making Reeva seem decent.

As Freeland crime lord Tobias Whale on “Black Lightning,” Marvin Jones III doesn’t chew scenery so much as he savors it like expensive caviar. He inspires his underlings with barely veiled threats on their life and makes pronouncements such as “Either you’re dining, or you’re dinner” (and then he eats caviar soon after). If Tobias was a real person, he’d be terrifying. It’s a close call, but a delicious baddie edges out realistic societal evil.

Advantage: “Black Lightning”

MORALLY AMBIGUOUS CHARACTERS

On “Black Lightning,” track star Khalil (Jordan Calloway) is going to figuratively run away from the mean streets, but he gets paralyzed. Then he’s cured by Tobias’ cutting-edge technology and in his debt. On “The Gifted,” gloomy ex-Sentinel Services agent Jace (Coby Bell) lost his daughter in a mutant attack and has channeled that hurt into a quest for “justice” against mutants. But he’s sharp enough to see the folly in painting a whole class of people with one brush.

At some point, both Khalil and Jace will do the right thing, probably sacrificing themselves in the process. I think it’ll happen sooner on “Black Lightning,” with Tobias killing poor Khalil. While Jace’s arc is already too drawn out, exactly how he will come to the side of good is less easy to predict and therefore more interesting.

Advantage: “The Gifted”

HATRED OF THE OTHER

“Black Lightning” sometimes puts a spotlight on bigotry – Jefferson gets a DWB in the pilot episode and Anissa has a similar experience in the most recent hour – but it largely avoids the subject. Most of the populace of Freeland is black, so there aren’t a lot of clashes based on race (although the characters do refer to themselves as being black to an inordinate degree, even if only the audience can hear them). And Gambi (James Remar) is the Pierce family’s best friend.

“The Gifted” slogs around in a morass of bigotry, as we’re constantly shown how society fears mutants, leading to the emergence of Sentinel Services and other groups mandated to lock away anyone with the X gene. Kate (Acker) has no powers and is sympathetic to mutantkind, but of course she is: Her husband, son and daughter are mutants. On the topic of race relations, “Black Lightning” is the more pleasant show to watch, but “The Gifted” is admittedly more robust.

Advantage: “The Gifted”

HATRED OF THEIR OWN POWERS

Both “The Gifted’s” Reed (Moyer) and “Black Lightning’s” Jennifer struggle with powers that turn them into a human volcano of sorts. Both stories are in the familiar “Woe is me; I can’t control my powers” vein, one about an adult who thinks he has failed his family, one about a sullen teenager. Both actors are fine, but I feel worse for the veteran Moyer having to go through this clichéd arc.

Advantage: “Black Lightning”

LOOK AND STYLE

The lighting schemes of these shows are backward from what they should be: “Black Lightning” is visually dark with a lighter story; “The Gifted” is visually bright with a grimmer story.

“The Gifted” embraces a comic-book palette with Polaris’ green hair, Blink’s (Jamie Chung) purple hair and green eyes, the Frost triplets’ (Skyler Samuels) white hair and high fashions, and the sewer-dwelling mutant Morlocks who purposely brand their faces with “M’s.”

Black Lightning and Thunder have costumes, whereas none of the mutants do, yet “Black Lightning” remains the visually tamer show. “The Gifted’s” battles are all light shows and stunt work, the type of spectacle where a jaded viewer’s mind can drift, but “Black Lightning’s” action scenes are even more distracting thanks to the ubiquitous hip-hop/rap soundtrack.

I like the Pierce family’s warm home and Gambi’s tailor shop with a pseudo-Batcave in the basement, but “The Gifted” is the more lavish production; comparing stills from each set, a viewer would assume it’s the more exciting show to watch. Both are filmed in Atlanta, but “The Gifted” ventures to interesting rundown buildings to serve as hideaways, and also showcases slick-looking sets for Reeva’s Inner Circle.

Advantage: “The Gifted”

FUN FACTOR

“Black Lightning” is easily the more fun show. No in-depth study is needed to know that its characters smile a lot more than those on “The Gifted.” Cress Williams’ smirk is never far from emerging, and McClain isn’t far removed from bubbly Disney Channel fare. Every cast member knows what this show is: A fun diversion built around serious themes that – if we’re being honest – aren’t being explored in new ways. “The Gifted” likewise treads familiar ground, but it does so with desperate earnestness. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall if any character has ever smiled. I think Polaris smirked once.

Advantage: “Black Lightning”

FINAL ANALYSIS

“Black Lightning” is the less bad show by a 5-4 margin, and that matches my gut feeling. “The Gifted” has more serious ambitions, better production values, and the gravitas of both the “X-Men” mythology and the abundant real-world parallels. At first blush, it’s the better show, and I feel duty-bound to keep up with the “X-Men” Universe. But “Black Lighting” has characters who smile and whose lives aren’t in peril every single minute; its flaws are endearing and forgivable, whereas “The Gifted” has set its own bar higher than it can reach.

Overall winner: “Black Lightning”

“Black Lightning” so far:

“The Gifted” so far:


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