Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Misfits: I Don’t Think We’re in Smallville Anymore

Two weeks ago, Misfits began its much anticipated second season. When the show premiered last fall in the UK on Channel 4, it was nothing short of a phenomenon. This past June Misfits surprised everyone, including the show’s young stars, when it won the BAFTA for Best Drama, beating out BBC favourites Spooks (aka MI-5 in North America), Being Human, and Jimmy McGovern’s exquisitely powerful The Street. Part teen drama, part science fiction, part inner-city portrait, the premise of the show is deceptively familiar: five young delinquents suddenly find themselves with superpowers. We’ve all seen comparable stories before, be it on Smallville, Heroes, The X-Men, or more recently, this season’s No Ordinary Family on ABC. And while on paper Misfits might bear a passing resemblance to these more conventional offerings it has very little in common with any of them. The series is intelligent, darkly comic, intensely suspenseful, and always extraordinarily fun. Think of it as Heroes meets The Breakfast Club, with a large dash of Trainspotting.

Set against a grey, urban landscape peppered with alienated youth, decaying infrastructure, and economic despair, Misfits is, ironically, more grounded in reality than many other less fantastical shows. The show’s writing is sharp and hilarious, invariably profane, and refreshingly unadorned. (Series creator Howard Overman is credited with penning every one of the first season’s 6 episodes and it looks as if the same will be true for the current season.) The five young actors—largely unknown before they were cast in the show—don’t have the cheek-bones, jarring athletic builds, and model good looks that populate what passes for teen dramas on American television, but they are consistently superb in their roles. The charisma of Robert Sheehan, the young Irish actor who plays Nathan on the series, could carry the show on its own, but each of our ‘heroes’ is a well-drawn and profoundly human character.

Iwan Rheon as Simon
Thrown together by a number of discrete acts of petty criminality, our protagonists are each sentenced to a period of community service, forming an involuntary club of outcasts compelled to come together daily to perform dreary tasks like painting over graffiti and picking up trash. Soon after they meet, they are caught in a freak lightning storm which gives each a “superpower” which manifests their deepest insecurities, a power which is more of a curse than a blessing. These powers, we soon realize, are funhouse mirror reflections of the character’ states of mind when the lightning hit, metaphysical expressions of their stalled adolescence. Hard-as-nails Kelly (Lauren Socha) who obsesses over how other people see her, can now hear people’s thoughts; Simon (Iwan Rheon), an introverted loner with the affect and haircut of a young Ian Curtis (the tragic late frontman of Joy Division), discovers he can make himself invisible; disgraced track star Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) can turn back time; Alisha (Antonia Thomas), a promiscuous teen who uses sexuality to manipulate others, now provokes uncontrollable lust in whoever touches her skin. Nathan (Robert Sheehan) is brash, shameless and smart-alecky, all swagger and pointed put-downs, the direct result of absent and neglectful parenting. Most frustrating of all to Nathan, it appears that he doesn’t have a power at all. (Needless to say, that’s what second seasons are for.)

Robert Sheehan as Nathan
But these specific details aside, the show is who our characters are, not what they can do. Misfits doesn’t make the mistake that, for example, No Ordinary Family has made (where the powers compensate for personal flaws). On Misfits, these new abilities don’t fill in gaps in their lives or personalities, but instead only exaggerate traits that were already present. As narrative choices go, this may seem to be a simple enough insight, but in practice it is a surprisingly fresh take. As a result, our protagonists, after the lightning storm, are still themselves, only more so. The only real difference is that now their pain is visible to all—which perhaps, unknown to them, it always was. (In last week’s episode we witnessed a perfect example of this in a brief encounter Nathan has with a pretty bartender who inadvertently freezes everything she touches. “I have intimacy issues,” she says with a shrug.) The drama that emerges from these situations is therefore always a reflection of who they are and who they’ve been. The show isn’t about how to live with a superpower, or the struggle to keep it a secret, or an overarching plot to figure out how they powers work or why the powers happened. It is about the people themselves—the fantastical situation is a way of accessing the characters, and not vice versa.

Antonia Thomas and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
My favourite fantasy narratives contain stories and characters so substantial and genuine that they will allow that supernatural element to be removed—or treated merely metaphorically—without any loss of truth, weight, or significance. There’s a small scene from the first season that illustrates this vividly. There, Curtis is trying (repeatedly) to break up with his girlfriend. But every time he approaches that inevitable conclusion, she begins to cry inconsolably. Upset and stressed by her reaction, Curtis’ time displacement power kicks in, involuntarily throwing him right back to the beginning of the conversation, forcing him to begin once again or abandon his efforts. That feeling of going in circles, of having history rewritten before your eyes, has never been quite so perfectly portrayed with such poignancy and humour.

With most of the action taking place in or near one community centre, the setting is impressively restrained. The Southeast London locale, a backdrop of council apartments and grey skies, is part of why the show remains consistently grounded in reality, despite the unmistakable allure of its more fantastical elements. (A recurring view from outside the centre might be familiar to fans of A Clockwork Orange, which was also filmed in this area.) This restraint fully complements the personal nature of the character-centred storylines, and keeps our focus on our protagonists and not the wider world, which we only get access to by way of their (non)relation to it. There are no master villains plotting our protagonists’ destruction and no epic multi-episode arcs: it isn’t the world which is at stake, but who these characters will be.

At the core of the show’s appeal are a handful of true-to-life teenagers: each finding their own way through a world that wants nothing to do with them except to keep them from causing trouble. Though the show’s moral centre is constantly shifting—for example, our gang of five has a nasty habit of (accidently) killing their probation workers—Misfits isn’t a celebration of delinquency so much as its humanization. Our main characters might not yet really know who or what they are, but they (and all like them) are judged, boxed in, and controlled on a daily basis by people who don’t give them a second look, except perhaps to cross the street to avoid them. In general terms, this can be boiled down to a fairly straightforward moral: if you judge these kids simply on their appearance, you will invariably miss the power and potential they each possess.

Lauren Socha as Kelly
But what keeps the show from ever veering off into sentimental cliché is that our heroes aren’t really out to prove anyone wrong. They aren’t rebelling or struggling against unfair definitions. They are comfortable with their powerlessness, so much so that it has seeped into their very being—and when they are given actual superpowers it only makes their lack of control over their own lives more evident. They are content to be ignored, happy to have fallen away from external expectations—be it from their parents or from society at large. They’re just getting by, coming back day after day to do their time and patiently wait out their sentence. But there are stories there. They are much more than they appear, and so is this show.

With its frank sexuality, extreme language, and often violent situations, the show is definitely not for children. Though its characters are in their teens, Misfits confidently walks over the lines that our popular media tends to draw for ‘teen entertainment.’ Nonetheless, the adolescent angst and finely drawn portraits of disaffection and inner suffering that the series draws upon will no doubt hit home for a young audience. Still, you didn’t hear it from me.

The second season of Misfits began on Channel 4 on November 11, with new episodes airing weekly through the end of December. The first season Misfits aired in its entirety in Canada on Showcase this past spring. To date, the show hasn’t aired in the U.S., however the complete first season is available on DVD (in PAL format) at Amazon.com.

-- Mark Clamen is a lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.


  1. Technically, Smallville isn't even in Smallville anymore, it's in Metropolis. Anyways, nice review. Still don't think I'll be digging into Misfits anytime soon.

  2. Ok so im in canada and its not showing me the show! did it even get released here? i watch doctor who and bieng human, but misfits never got aired!

  3. The first season of Misfits aired on Showcase in Canada last spring (premiering on March 29, 2010). Hopefully they will be airing the second season very soon, although it hasn't yet re-appeared on its schedule.