British genre television is a fickle beast, airing either in abundance or hardly at all. The success of the revitalised Doctor Who has thankfully led to numerous science fiction, fantasy, and horror shows with that much-missed no-bollocks British sensibility. For the decade prior, one show would came along in a blue moon to get our hopes up for a revival, but nothing would appear in its wake. Ultraviolet was a lone wolf in the late 90s, offering a pragmatic and innovate take on vampires years before they re-entered popular culture in force. But now we don’t have to hang our hats on just one British genre piece. There’s Torchwood, Being Human, Primeval, Dead Set, Paradox, and more. I can’t vouch for the quality of all of them, but if a number are being made then we’re far more likely to have a few standouts. Misfits is one of them.
The first series wrapped up on ABC2 on Monday, a month after winning Best Drama at the BAFTAs despite airing on a peripheral British digital channel and focusing on foul-mouthed, dysfunctional youths with superpowers. If genre television is so prevalent that it can even crest the peak of mainstream award shows then it is becoming part of the British television landscape again, as it should.
I’ll resist the urge to proffer ‘this-show-meets-that-movie’ comparisons as I’m sure you’ll be able to infer them. Five young people doing community service for petty crime are suddenly transformed by a mysterious storm and develop superheroic powers, from telepathy and invisibility to some less orthodox ones. With the setup out of the way quickly, creator Howard Overman sets out to tell a contemporary superhero story the British way, most notably by giving the superpowers not to pillars of society or pop-culture obsessed Whedonesque figures but those in between: average young people with only a passing interest in superhero yarns and doing the right thing. Overman also doesn’t care about the source of their powers or about them being particularly heroic. Even when they threaten to be, they certainly don’t talk to each other about their moral obligations. They continue to be kids dealing with their own issues, and powers are a vaguely embarrassing hindrance rather than a means for personal growth.
Each episode stands reasonably alone, but there is a throughline concerning the fallout from their first encounter with their powers (hint: they’re not alone). That storyline is compelling but a little cliched and stretches credibility, especially in light of how deliberately mundane the show is designed to be. But it does yield some interesting character explorations, particularly with Simon (Iwan Rheon), the friendless ‘freak’ who is both the smartest and most naive of the group. Rheon looks exquisitely uncomfortable in his own skin; his teeth can even be seen grinding through his cheeks. All the actors are engaging, particularly the mesmerising Robert Sheehan as Nathan, the one character whose power is yet to reveal itself if it even exists at all. Sheehan gives every line a unique spin, and can elicit laughs just with a shift of his eyes, never more so than in the darkly hilarious closing scene of series one.
But like his castmates, he’s equally comfortable with drama, which the series embraces wholeheartedly even though it refuses to become po-faced and serious, especially with regard to the ethics of their powers. Misfits is blatantly the polar opposite of Heroes, which drowned in its inflated sense of self-importance, but the more subtle difference is that Misfits still absolutely needs the superhero conceit to exist. Lesser shows wear their high-concept on their sleeve, announcing it ten times an episode, whereas Misfits downplays it to the point where we take it for granted and happily accept wherever the show chooses to go, fantastic or mundane. As in classic superhero fiction, each character’s power – or lack thereof – reflects who they are and deepens our understanding of them. Such success at integrating character with fantastic narrative is apparently difficult since it is so rarely achieved by other shows (V is a particularly egregious example).
Let’s not get too academic though. Genre shows are meant to be fun, and Misfits is a riot. Even though it stringently avoids the mythology of a Lost or Battlestar Galactica, it’s a frequently funny, exciting, and poignant down-to-earth superhero adventure that puts most genre shows to shame. A Christmas special and a second series are on the way at the end of the year.