You notice the orange boiler suits first. One slides over a shapely ankle sporting a monitoring bracelet. A curly-haired youth shrugs into his, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Two orange-clad girls preen in the mirror. Another young man pulls a singlet over a muscled torso. A neat, intense-looking chap smoothes his hair and adjusts his collar.
These are the protagonists of the darkly comic UK sci-fi drama Misfits. Created by veteran TV writer Howard Overman, Misfits first aired in 2009 on E4, the youth-oriented pay-TV network owned by Channel 4 (airing on ABC2 in Australia). So far it has run for two six-episode seasons, plus a Christmas special that acted as a coda to season two, and it won the 2010 BAFTA Award for Best Drama Series.A third season is currently being filmed.
Misfits follows five teenage Londoners undertaking court-ordered community service in the fictional estate suburb of Wertham. At first, they’re the embodiment of surly, cocky delinquents, antagonizing each other and their probation worker, Tony. But when they’re struck by lightning during a freak electrical storm, each youth acquires a different supernatural power. The same storm turns Tony into a homicidal maniac, and the group kills him in self-defence. Now they have two secrets to protect, especially when their new probation worker, Sally, turns out to be Tony’s suspicious fiancée.
The characters’ powers are both consequences and ironic reversals of their personalities and histories. Kelly (Lauren Socha) reacts aggressively when she suspects she’s being judged for her stereotypically ‘chav’ appearance and accent. She’s the first to discover her power: she can hear other people’s thoughts. Awkward loner Simon’s (Iwan Rheon) hobby is compulsively video recording everything he sees. His power is invisibility. Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) was a champion sprinter set to star in the 2012 Olympics until he was busted for cocaine possession and banned from his sport. Grieving the loss of his future, Curtis discovers that he can rewind time whenever he feels a strong sense of personal regret. Alisha (Antonia Thomas) has always traded on her attractiveness to men. But after the storm, any man who touches her bare skin is involuntarily compelled to have sex with her. And smart-mouthed Irish kid Nathan (Robert Sheehan), who immediately asserts himself as the group’s leader, is the last to discover his powers. Nathan’s narcissism and compulsion to provoke others have repeatedly got him in trouble. Only when he sacrifices his life for the group at the climax of season one does Nathan discover he’s immortal.
In April 2011, E4 announced Sheehan would be leaving the show, and Nathan replaced by a new character, Rudy (Joe Gilgun). Misfits fans were outraged; Nathan isn’t just an audience favourite but the show’s most prominent and well-developed character. But the casting change suits the show’s broader narrative flux; in the Christmas special, the Misfits sold their powers to a shady ‘power dealer’, and the ones they buy back will be different.
When Misfits first aired, critics widely compared it to the American sci-fi drama Heroes, branding it variously: ‘Heroes with an ASBO’, ‘Britain’s answer to Heroes’, and ‘Heroes for chavs’. In a more admiring vein that perhaps reflects dissatisfaction with Heroes’ later seasons, Misfits was also dubbed: ‘What Heroes should have been’ and ‘Heroes, minus the suck’.
The series do have striking similarities. Both follow a motley group of mostly youthful protagonists who are mysteriously granted superpowers. Both depict characters grappling with the implications of their new-found abilities, while evading antagonists who are threatening them. And both are set in a heightened version of the real world, where quotidian dramas mingle with paranormal episodes.
Heroes, however, is explicitly grounded in the American tradition of superhero comics, especially the angstier and grittier style epitomized by Stan Lee’s work on Marvel Comics such as Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men. Heroes reflects superhero comics’ Manichaean themes and preoccupation with ‘origin stories’, and its major source of narrative drama is whether superpowers should be used selfishly or altruistically. The series also mirrors comic books in its episodic structure and its visual language.
The UK series that best explores these American themes is the 2008 ITV sitcom No Heroics, which exploits for comedic effect the possibilities of comic-book superheroes living openly in mainstream Britain. By contrast, Misfits deliberately refuses superhero genre conventions. While its characters joke about how they could harness their powers (‘There’s always one who can fly!’ says a hopeful Nathan), it’s treated with dark humour:
Simon: What if we’re meant to be, like, superheroes?
Nathan: No offence, but in what kind of fucked-up world is that allowed to happen?
Alisha: I did not sign up for that.
Kelly: What if there’s loads of people like us all over town?
Nathan: No, that kind of thing only happens in America.
But Kelly is right. The Misfits gradually encounter many others whose powers – acquired in the freak storm – reflect their personalities, habits and desires.
The pleasures of Misfits lie in the unfurling friendships between its five central characters. Successive episodes reveal more about the circumstances that landed them in community service, and show the group banding together to escape immediate dangers, bantering and squabbling their way from distrust and enmity to respect and understanding.
Misfits also offers a shrewd, exuberant debunking of moral panics surrounding the UK’s ‘ASBO generation’. Introduced in 1998, the Anti-Social Behaviour Order was a Blair Government initiative restricting behaviour deemed to harass, alarm or distress the general public. ASBOs prohibit individuals from behaving in specified ways; violation of the order is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years’ jail. They’re imposed for petty offences including public drunkenness, theft, vandalism, noise pollution, littering, billposting and fare evasion.
While the oldest ASBO recipient to date is an 87-year-old man forbidden to be sarcastic to his neighbours (and who subsequently violated the order three times), the orders are widely perceived as a panicked crackdown on youthful pleasures – drinking, street art, break-dancing, congregating in public places and organising unlicensed dance parties. However, they also disproportionately target the socioeconomically disadvantaged and the mentally ill.
Being the subject of an ASBO can be either a social stigma or a perverse badge of pride. Early in season one of Misfits, a humiliated Curtis reminds the group he doesn’t have an ASBO, repeatedly insisting, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ Meanwhile, as the group dumps Tony’s body into a shallow grave, Nathan quips: ‘I’m pretty sure this breaches the terms of my ASBO!’
Misfits uses science-fiction tropes to dramatise the ways in which young Britons chafe against a system that renders them both hyper-visible and politically docile. Those orange suits are a key motif. Intended as simultaneous devices of public shaming and alienation of individuality, they instead symbolise the developing bond between the characters, and are subtly personalised by them.
Nathan wears his suit partly unzipped, and changes the ‘COMMUNITY PAYBACK’ stencil on the back to ‘COMMUNITY BLOWBACK’. Flirtatious Alisha cinches her suit with a belt, unzips it to reveal cleavage, pops the collar and rolls up the cuffs. Simon keeps his collar fully fastened, and Curtis’s suit is worn like a pair of baggy pants, with the sleeves tied around his waist.
Misfits has been claimed as a hybrid of Heroes and teen drama Skins, Misfits’s E4 stablemate. First aired in 2007, Skins follows the lives of various teenagers attending Bristol private school Roundview College, employing a different character’s perspective in each episode and completely changing its cast every two seasons (five seasons have aired so far).
Skins incorporates the social cliques, teen romances and family conflicts that dominate American teen TV, and especially parallels Gossip Girl’s use of mobile phones and digital communication to police social belonging and forge or destroy relationships. However, it is firmly in the issues-based TV tradition more often found in Commonwealth-made series, including Grange Hill, Degrassi and Heartbreak High. Skins deploys interpersonal dramas to explore themes of race, class, abuse, religion, mental health, and diversity of sexual orientation and expression.
Some critics branded Skins’ amoral, independent and tech-savvy characters unrealistic and stereotypical, but it has been hugely popular among its target audience. Indeed, the notion of ‘authenticity’ is vital to Skins. At times its action- and character-packed plotlines, and its soundtrack full of edgy contemporary music, certainly veer towards the youthful drugs-and-raves capers epitomised by films including Go, Human Traffic and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But even when the show takes dramatic licence, it nonetheless represents situations its viewers recognise, and characters with whom they can empathise.
While Misfits doesn’t set out to be didactic, it’s important for the show to cultivate naturalistic, Skins-style characterisation – along with some issues-based plots – because Misfits dramatises how ordinary youths might respond to an extraordinary predicament. The Misfits’ lively, profanity-laced and very funny dialogue is a joy of the series, and their interactions are refreshingly unselfconscious. They talk and act like real kids, rather than with the precocious, mannered quality of Dawson’s Creek or The O.C.
As in Skins, the Misfits form romantic and platonic relationships and unabashedly get drunk, take drugs, visit clubs and parties, and have enthusiastic sex. But the show always puts these activities in the context of the group’s new-found powers. Curtis and Alisha’s sex life is limited by their inability to touch. When the Misfits pop pills at a warehouse party, their powers are unexpectedly reversed. And the various love interests introduced for Kelly, Simon, Nathan and (later) Curtis possess powers that threaten the group or reveal more about them.
Furthermore, the sexual politics in Misfits are less carefully considered than an issues-based show would allow. It’s striking how many of the threats to the Misfits revolve around sex. Simon encounters a girl from his past who has a now-deadly crush on him; he also loses his virginity to a girl whose over-protective father tries to murder the group. The return of Curtis’s ex-girlfriend triggers him to change the past in chaotic ways, and Kelly falls for a man who turns out to be a gorilla in human form (yes, really!). In the season one finale, the Misfits must defeat a girl who can brainwash teenagers into sexual conservatism.
The character of Alisha is especially problematic. She is defined solely by her sexuality – first by her power, then by her relationship with Curtis then by her relationship with Simon. The aggressive come-ons triggered by her power – some from police and probation workers – are troublingly akin to rape; it’s as if she’s being punished for once being in control of her sexuality. It’s impossible for Alisha to use her power to help the group except by submitting to an unwanted sexual encounter. And while he recoils when Nathan calls him a ‘panty-sniffer’, Simon’s uncomfortably pathological ways of relating to women are oddly downplayed by the show’s increased focus on his socially and sexually confident future self. He’s shown using his invisibility to perve on Kelly and Alisha getting changed, and to stalk Sally the probation worker. When Sally discovers incriminating footage on Simon’s phone, Simon accidentally kills her in a scuffle to get it back. Creepily, he keeps Sally’s corpse in a chest freezer at the community centre, visiting it often but not telling the other Misfits.
Perhaps these dissonances reveal that Misfits wants to romanticize young people’s struggle for pleasure, belonging and respect, rather than romanticising the supernatural. Its protagonists are misfits before they even discover their powers, and they fight economic marginality and authoritarian surveillance more than shadowy forces of evil.