How do you do a superhero series right? You'd think it would be easy, thanks to superheroes coming from a similar serialized form, the comic. But the high-profile crashing and burning of Heroes, as well as last season's slow collapse of No Ordinary Family and faster decline of The Cape (both of which I covered here) suggest otherwise, at least for American TV. In the comments for No Ordinary Family, some readers suggested that Misfits got it right across the Atlantic, and with it coming to regular Hulu (not Plus), I jumped at the opportunity to cover it and see if it did get things right, and if so, how?
The most important thing that the pilot episode does is that it keeps things simple. I think there are maybe eight or nine actors who appear in multiple scenes. The bulk of the episode are the five main characters arguing with one another and discovering their powers. The powers themselves are all simple – camera tricks and acting, nothing that requires a special effect any more intense than smearing Vaseline on the camera lens. The thunderstorm that gives our heroes their powers is a brief bit of cheap CGI, but it's only on-screen for a couple of seconds. This is clearly a drama that lives and dies by its characters.
So I was pleased to actually really like the characters, even though they're presented as stereotypes, they're stereotypes that seem to be given room to grow. The two main characters who get the most time are Kelly, a “chav” who develops telepathy, and Nathan, a smartass whose mom (played by Michelle Fairley, aka Cat Stark from Game of Thrones) kicks him out where it becomes entirely clear that his attitude is a defense mechanism – and doesn't have a power after the premiere. He's a problematic character, often funny, often annoying, always talking. I kind of hate him, but I also laughed at several of his jokes.
The other three are Simon, a shy lad who turns invisible when ignored, Curtis, a nationally-known athlete who was busted for a bit of coke who can turn back time, and Alisha, the most broadly-drawn character, an overly flirtatious social butterfly with the remarkably awkward power of causing extreme sexual arousal in the people she touches.
The youngsters with these powers all meet up to do community service for various crimes, some of which are explained, some not, but it's enough that it makes the show's title clear (which stands in clear opposition to No Ordinary Family and The Cape, which thought they derived power for the normalcy of their protagonists, but most certainly did not). Their personalities are all explained in a remarkably clever opening montage, where Alisha's bra adjustments or Simon seeming to put on his social face show the characters' core personalities. The whole thing is filled with nice little touches like that, including some nice comic-book-like framing at key moments.
The other things I like is that these young people are kind of dumb. Not necessarily television dumb, where they overlook entirely logical things in order to serve the plot, but that they have no frame of reference. Kelly's powers are the first to be revealed, and she cannot comprehend why she's suddenly hearing a dog's voice. It's not something that exists or can exist in her life. Simon, whose invisibility comes next, seems a little smarter in general, and manages to figure out what's going on much faster. It's another nice little touch in a show that seems to have several, despite being a bare-bones operation. B+
- “This is a chance to network with other young offenders!”
- Yeah, a talking dog. It's kind of a low point.
- An instrumental of the Velvet Underground's “Heroin” plays as Nathan tries to find a new place to live, and fails.
- “So do we have a deal?” “No.”
- “No one gets community service for possession.” Oh, other countries, with your crazy drug laws.
- “No. That kind of thing only happens in America.” Nathan's talking superheroes. Nice and meta, but not too overdone.
The second episode of Misfits goes in a fascinating direction, taking one character, Nathan, and focusing almost exclusively on him. Curtis' power is unused and unmentioned, Simon's occurs but without comment, and Kelly and Alisha get some slight purpose out of theirs, but generally? This is the Nathan show. And that's actually a really good move by the show, since Nathan's both the most dynamic person in the cast so far, as well as the one with the most going on in his life. He's also the only one whose power hasn't been revealed, which, in a fairly daring step, remains unrevealed by the end of the episode.
Almost as odd as that is the structure of the episode. The first half deals with Nathan trying to find out what's going on with his mother's boyfriend Jeremy after he finds Jeremy naked during his community service (this episode also does for Jeremy's “huge cock” what Bob's Burgers did for “anus” a couple months ago). Plot-wise, this is resolved early on, when Jeremy is revealed to have been altered during the storm to take on the personality of a Jack Russell Terrier whenever he sees one. Nathan tries to tell his mom this, but she already knows, and she Cat Stark-slaps him when he goes overboard.
As this is happening, Nathan has also met a lovely girl named Ruth while doing community service with elderly people and hating it. She, oddly, seems to be as smitten with him as he is with her, which is rather a lot. She's pixie dream girl, albeit not especially manic, and far too perfect for Nathan. My reaction to this was a lot like my reaction to the famous Buffy episode, “I Only Have Eyes For You” - both episodes seemed to be going down an entirely linear path, with everything being too obvious, that I couldn't help but feel that some twist was coming – but I had no idea what that twist would be. And when it did happen, it used the supernatural aspect of the show to demonstrate, marvelously, something about the character(s). In this case, Ruth was a fellow storm-hit person, and her desire to be youthful again triggered her youth. Which makes perfect sense with her behavior, changing a one-dimensional character into a tragic one, especially when Nathan treats her with horror instead of compassion.
It's also occasionally really fucking funny. The “huge cock” bit built on itself, but the single best scene was probably Nathan and Ruth making out at “her gran's” house, getting all hot and heavy on the escalating chair that allows the infirm to get up and down the stairs. I didn't think a show could trump The Sopranos use of that chair for comedy, but here it is.
If I have any major complaint about Misfits so far, it's a perhaps excessive use of music. I'm not sure if this is something that British shows do, or perhaps British shows aimed at young people, but there were times when it immediately shifted from one pop song chosen to be emotionally evocative straight into another on a similar theme. I don't hate it, but it does seem to be a bit of an unnecessary crutch (it also makes me wonder why the producers decided to spend the entirety of their budget on music). But that's a really minor quibble – I'm liking this show a lot. It knows what it is, and it has fun with what it is. Happy to watch it over the summer with you all. A-
- “It's not like this whole situation is backed up by a wankload of logic.”
- “Maybe he's a werewolf”
- “I sexually assaulted a ninety-year-old woman.” This...should not have been funny.
- “George Michael gets away with this shit. But he used to be in Wham! Who are you?”
- Still not a huge on Alisha or her superpower, but her “not again” face when the cop goes for her is pretty great.
- “I have no idea why that's out.”
- The new probation officer is treated far too obviously as the person stalking our heroes. A bit of an overstep, unless of course it is her.
- Several of you commenting may have seen this before, given its availability in other countries and via other methods. If you want to talk about future events, feel free, but please note your SPOILERS clearly.