I’ve just finished watching the first season of E4’s Misfits, which I sought out following Richard Morgan’s recommendation a few months ago. It had, I confess, flown entirely beneath my radar, but it’s also a show whose pitch doesn’t sound terribly promising: a bunch of ASBO kids on their first day of community service get caught in a mysterious storm that gives them all superpowers. Wackiness ensues.

An obvious reference point, you might think, is Heroes, and to start with Misfits does seem a bit like a version of that show self-consciously revised to be “young”, “edgy”, “urban”; or, less kindly, crude and juvenile. Each character’s power turns out to be related to its owner’s desires: Kelly (“the chavvy one”, as the Guardian puts it) can hear other people’s thoughts, Simon (“the weird one”) can become invisible, Curtis (“the angry one”, although I’d have gone for “the guilt-stricken one”) can turn back time, and Alisha (“the slutty one”) drives people into a sexual frenzy when she touches them (or, if you prefer, Wikipedia’s chaste description: “sex pheremone manipulation”). That leaves Nathan, “the Irish one who talks too much”, whose only powers seem to be creative obscenity and an inability to ever take anything seriously. Each gets a turn in the spotlight, over the course of the season’s six episodes, during which they start to come to terms with their changed circumstances; in each episode, too, the gang have to deal with someone else who’s been affected by the storm. But there’s no deliberate heroism involved, no forming a super-team: the five of them are pretty much just trying to get by, hanging around the community centre, partly because they don’t want to attract attention, having been forced to kill their original probation worker when he went into a murderous rage after the storm, but mostly because they’re not heroic types. There is, of course, more to them than their initial cliched flaws, but with the arguable exception of Curtis they discover no great reserves of inner virtue — admirable behaviour comes in brief flashes, if at all — and those flaws remain a part of who they are in ways that suggest we’re meant to understand, but not forgive. Socially inept, lonely, bullied Simon, for instance, attracts a certain amount of sympathy, but when a woman shows some interest, it doesn’t occur to him that he shouldn’t sneak into her house at night and, in a thoroughly creepy scene, film her sleeping. All of them demonstrate a basic lack of empathy when assigned to help out at a pensioners’ social. And so on.

It’s quite refreshing, actually. The whole thing also has a low-key aesthetic that seems clearly driven, at least in part, by a lack of budget, but the casual, character-led style works for the show. (And arguably the least successful episode is the finale, which attempts to stage a more traditionally large-scale confrontation.) It helps a great deal that the writing is both reasonably clever — Curtis’ time-travel-centric episode is a lot of fun — often very funny, mature when it needs to be and all in all not nearly as Torchwood as the premise suggests. In fact, as the season wore on, much more than Heroes I was put in mind of Buffy — high praise indeed, but it becomes clear the show’s fantastical engine is the sort of metaphor-driven coming-of-age exploration that Buffy made its own, and there are moments, particularly in the Nathan-centric second episode and the Simon-centric fifth, when Misfits shifts from drama to comedy to horror and back again with a familiar agility. It’s such moments that make it less of a surprise that Misfits beat out Being Human, The Street and Spooks to win a BAFTA for Best Drama earlier this year; and it’s such moments that’ll have me tuning in for the second season later this year.

18 thoughts on “Misfits

  1. Glad you liked it, Niall!

    More grist to my original whinge, though – here’s an SFnal show that wins the BAFTA for best drama, and gets across-the-board thumbs up reviews from the broadsheet press, and what impact has it made in SF-land? Did it pick up an SFX award (despite being showcased at the SFX Weekender)? Did it bollocks. Did it get extensive coverage in places like Io9? Did it bollocks. Did it garner even a single figure percentage of the coverage given to Who? Have a guess.

    It makes me realise, finally, that were anyone to actually make my decade and come up with the SFnal equivalent of The Wire or Sopranos series 1 that I so long for, it would most likely be totally ignored in the stampede to see Avatar 3, Star Trek: Teen Starship Captain Chronicles or SyFy’s latest Valley-Kids-Dress-Up-and-Fight-Evil extravaganza, whatever – god help us – that turns out to be.

  2. I can’t speak for the UK press, Richard, but io9 is an American site and reports on British shows only when they show up on BBC America (hence Who, Being Human, etc.). Personally, I checked out of this series the moment I heard about the girl who can drive men wild with desire.

  3. “Yeah, everyone seems to compare it to Skins. I’ve never seen it, though.”

    Don’t bother. The first series was patchy but with promise, and then they completely buggered it up with the second series. The third was just rubbish from the start, and I never got around to watching the forth and most recent as a result.

    Watch the Inbetweeners instead. Much better.

  4. Yeah, I did say “places like Io9″. And in fact, Misfits did surface in a couple of comments here and there on the Io9 site – my point is that this initial kindling never took, that the global SF community as a whole has pretty much let the show slip through its fingers.

    It’s a shame you let a sketched sub-plot put you off, Abigail – you’re missing some excellent, hard-hitting drama out of a quick-draw misapprehension; and the sub-plot that did put you off is used to say a whole bunch of very interesting things about desire, desire for attention and modern gender relations in general; it’s also horrible, hilarious and quite touching, all at the same time. In other words it is relevant, powerful and references the real without wincing away, as any good drama should. (there again, bearing in mind our previous differences over The West Wing, I have to wonder if that would be your thing….)

  5. What I think makes Misfits work so well is that it puts its ‘inner-city ASBO kids’ aesthetic first, and interprets the idea of supepowers through that aesthetic (your comparison with Buffy is well-made, I think, as it did something similar). Whereas Heroes was determined to be a superhero comic on telly before all else, and got lost in its alternate realities and character-recycling.

  6. the moment I heard about the girl who can drive men wild with desire.

    Not just men, although it’s true that to date we’ve only had a couple of glimpses of her power affecting women. I agree with Richard that the execution goes in some interesting directions — and for the most part manages to resist being moralising — although I’d say she’s the least well-developed of the characters at this point. I have this feeling they’ve got her in a holding pattern until they’re ready to have her learn to control and extend her power, as they all inevitably will.

    Also, I can’t believe it took me three episodes to work out that she’s a riff on Rogue.

  7. @ David:

    Seconded! – and this is exactly the problem; the blind alley the genre so-often finds itself in where TV and movies are concerned is exactly a function of privileging gosh-wow and CGI over the more complex (therefore harder to achieve, requiring more creative skill) areas of character and actually having something intelligent to say.

  8. @ Niall

    Yeah, the approach to morality was one of the things I loved about the show. Illegal drug taking, heavy drinking, casual sex, petty crime, lack of personal empathy – none of these things are judged either good or bad; they’re simply presented for what they are and offered for examination. You can see why they’re popular; you can also see the various crashes waiting for those who indulge in them. And when a one-size-fits-all, for want of a better word “middle class” morality is wheeled out in the final episode in opposition, it’s shown up for exactly the plastic, inflexible and unappealing strait-jacket that it is.

  9. Ah you’ve never seen Skins. That’s what makes the review so odd. because it is absolutely completely clear that what Misfits is and intended to be is Skins done well again (the 3rd and 4th series of Skins having been catastrophically bad); the series has no real interest in sf at all beyond what was obviously a successful pitch (Skins meets Heroes indeed), hence why the “storm creates mutants” original story is treated (correctly) with absolutely desultory interest.

    None of this is a crit: I absolutely love Misfits. (And agree with you that lack of budget really worked to their advantage – btw I spent ages trying to work out where they filmed it, it looked so familiar – apparently its far West London, cheaper than using the Docklands it looks like!) But if you want to review it go watch Skins series 1 and 2 first..

  10. ps to @NickH : wow all I can say is horses for courses. Skins series 2 especialy is an Austenesque comedy of manners compared to the horror that is Inbetweeners..

  11. the series has no real interest in sf at all beyond what was obviously a successful pitch

    No, I don’t think I agree with that. Pretty much every moment of character development is grounded in how the lives and situations of these characters has been changed by the fantastic. What there isn’t is any engagement with the wider world — which given that the storm turns out to have affected large numbers of people is at times slightly odd — but plenty of other telefantasy takes the same route, not least (again) Buffy.

  12. ps to @NickH : wow all I can say is horses for courses. Skins series 2 especialy is an Austenesque comedy of manners compared to the horror that is Inbetweeners..

    The first series of Skins, I thought was interesting. There were some bits of it that really didn’t work, but I was impressed that at least they were trying something different, they mixed light and dark moments (to varying effect), and the last episode of the series was a cracking bit of telly.

    However. I felt with series two they decided to drop a lot of the more interesting stuff and go down a straight drama route. Not only that, a straight drama route that involved taking the characters and, basically shitting on them all from a great height. Moments of lightness were far and few between, and instead the viewer was treated to lashings of pain and misery. This wasn’t quite what I watched the first series of Skins for, so that’s why I didn’t enjoy it at all.

    As for Inbetweeners, perhaps you have to be (or have been) a teenaged boy to really appreciate that show. If Skins is the idealised teenage world (where everybody is so cool, and they have these terrible human dramas to deal with ALL THE TIME), then the Inbetweeners is the actualised teenage world, where, actually, you’re not that cool at all. You never were that cool. And all those things you were making dramas out of really were that tiny and meaningless. It’s a brilliant show, it really is.

    And finally; Misfits. I haven’t seen that yet, but I’ll be sure to catch up on it when I can. It appears to be available on 4od, which is handy.

  13. Yeah – there has been a shocking lack of attention given to Misfits; especially from the SF community. It was actually my wife who pointed it out to me…it is the only thing I make a point of watching every week at the moment.

  14. I just bought this on DVD, finished it in two sittings and fucking loved it.

    I think the comparison to Buffy is apposite. It does that emotional range and slowburn coming-of-age brilliantly. I’ve also just been watching the first season of Ashes To Ashes and it is a real contrast. Okay, A2A is not set in the real world (and perhaps some of it will be explained later), but the tonal dissonance is just crazy and it doesn’t have the heft of Misfits. You also have ridiculously neat character arcs where a sexist character can ingest feminisim and learn a life lesson within the space of a single episode. As you say, Misfits rejects this; its characters are more human, more complex.

    I am enjoying A2A but I’m enjoying it for quite specific things, things not really related to good telly. The one thing all three do share is great dialogue and, more importantly, great dialogue that stems from great characters. In fact, I don’t think what you need for good telly is much of a mystery: an ensemble cast playing varied characters with individual depths who have good chemistry together (both as actors and characters). I guess the acid test is, would you be happy to watch an episode where the characters are locked in a room? Buffy, Misfits, Ashes To Ashes, yes, yes, yes. Doctor Who? Not so much.

    Of course, for great telly like The Wire you have to do something special and sustained with your ensemble (this is what raises it above, say, The Shield). This is what Misfits – and all televisual SF – is still lacking.

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