Paul Mison wrote a bit about Misfits, the E4 drama, which reminded me that I’d meant to dash off a quick “isn’t Misfits great” post when series two was on air. So here it is.
In case you’re not aware of Misfits, its sober Wikipedia entry describes it as “a British comedy-drama series about a group of young offenders forced to work in a community service programme, where they attain supernatural powers after a strange electrical storm.”
The show it reminds me of most is Buffy the Vampire Slayer which was wonderful in very similar ways. Just as Buffy was ostensibly about vampires and demons and so forth, but was fundamentally about teenagers growing up, so Misfits is only about troubled kids with super powers on the surface. Underneath it’s as much about relationships and boredom and other teen anxieties as Buffy was.
These aspects are often dismissed, or not even noticed, by people who don’t watch, or just don’t enjoy, either show, because the subtler stuff is buried under so many thick levels of pop culture references and wisecracking and over-the-top characters and utterly unbelievable situations that it can be hard to believe there’s anything more in there. It’s hard to believe that both shows can be moving.
This is, as any fan would know, one of the shows’ successes, the refracting of true-to-life relationships and problems through the prism of superhero-comic bizarreness.
That episode of Buffy where the joking around was put on hold for the terribly tragic event that happened to the heroine’s family (which I won’t go into for fear of spoiling things) was one of the best bits of TV I’ve ever seen. That a show which was usually full of stupid Californian joking around, occult mumbo-jumbo and over-the-top fighting could also produce an episode as heartbreaking and, simply, as quiet as that was astonishing.
Similarly, Misfits, while mostly bursting with snappy lines and jokes and similarly exaggerated action, somehow manages to turn on a sixpence and utterly change the tone in a moment.
In series two, Alisha, who previously spent much of her time being overly confident and overtly sexual, was having to cope with some difficult emotional loss (again, avoiding spoilers here) in some wonderfully tender moments whose gentleness was all the more impressive for the loud and frenetic action around them. It’s almost impossible to believe these instant changes in tone, accomplished through great acting and snappy editing, can possibly work, but they do.
One other thing that Misfits made me realise: how stilted and staged so much TV drama is. Actually, I was thinking of American TV drama, because that’s most of what I watch, but also because Misfits feels much closer — in terms of action and production style — to big budget American drama than it does to UK shows (which is meant as neither a compliment or a put-down).
I hate the adjective “crackling” when applied to dialogue, but it’s a pretty good description of the Misfits style. The dialogue’s not only quick, well-written, and delivered by wonderful performers, but it feels somehow alive. While I can’t imagine people uttering most of what’s said in the real world, the characters still manage to seem like they’re living creatures, delivering lines that sound authentic for them in that world.
Compare it to a vaguely related US series such as True Blood (which I also love) and suddenly the vampire-troubled residents of Bon Temps look like they’re on stage in a slightly awkward theatre production. Never mind a comparison with something much lamer, such as the desperate Desperate Housewives, in which the characters are so fake and dead-eyed they might as well be generated by special-effects computers a few generations up the Moore’s Law family tree.
Misfits isn’t perfect — there are sometimes things that don’t work or that never quite seem to go anywhere satisfying — but most of the time I can’t believe that TV this full of joy and fun and quirk can get commissioned and turn out so well.
(Disclaimer: I worked on the website promoting the first series of Misfits but would have watched the show anyway; I’m also enjoying my fifth series of Skins.)