Misfits: standing out from the E4 crowd

The comedy drama about council-estate kids with superpowers is superior to the usual youth-channel fare.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

Titles require a great deal of thought. Imagine if some of our most popular twentieth-century artists had stuck to the original titles of some of their masterpieces and popular works. Imagine if TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ had been printed as ‘He Do the Police In Different Voices’. Imagine if Paul, John, George and Ringo had tried to seek world fame as Long John and The Beetles, or if Paul McCartney’s famous lament for yesterday’s happiness had been dubbed ‘Scrambled Eggs’. Imagine if film buffs would be arguing over whether Orson Welles’ RKO 281 (rather than Citizen Kane) or Everybody Comes to Rick’s (rather than Casablanca) was the greatest movie of all time.

So what to make of a TV programme called Misfits? On the one hand, it shares a title with a great US punk band, and with a classic film scripted by Arthur Miller, directed by John Huston and featuring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in their last screen appearances. On the other hand, it comes from youth-orientated channel E4, sharing billing with the jollily-named A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila and horny liberal journalist wankfest Skins. It centres on a group of working-class teenage miscreants – chavs, in UK parlance – being forced into US-style community service. Stereotypes abound: the slaggy black girl, the slaggy white girl, the cocky Irish jack-the-lad, the soulful black guy, the socially awkward middle-class kid with sociopathic eyes. It’s foul-mouthed, gorily violent and contains many scenes of a sexual nature (though little nudity).

The twist is that all of these ASBO kids are superheroes – or, at least, they were given supernatural powers in a freak lightning storm. More importantly, these powers reflect their personality traits, so that the black girl can drive people mad with lust, the chav girl can read minds, the soulful guy can turn back time when he deeply regrets an event, and the shy arsonist can make himself invisible. And the cocky one? He’s immortal – as he discovered having been impaled and waking up buried alive. He celebrated by, as the newspapers call it, performing a sex act upon himself.

Misfits returned for its second series this week, and has been a surefire cult hit. Like The Inbetweeners, another E4 hit, it combines an inventive use of very strong language and a ruthless eye for the broad comedy of humiliation inherent in teen life, with a sharpness of character and teen-speak to appeal to that demographic (and therefore exclude anyone over the age of 25). Anyone looking for a run-down of the current cool bands could do worse than check out the soundtrack to this show.

Yet it has a syrupy heart, too: in its essential plot of disparate teen cliques being thrown together by circumstance, it recalls the feelgood Eighties films of John Hughes. The metaphor of teenagers being suddenly gripped by powers, abilities and feelings they do not understand or are easily able to control is hardly an original one.

The programme’s tone veers gloriously from the serious to the absurd: the group’s members have an unfortunate tendency for accidentally bumping off their probation officers and having to fend off unwanted state interference in their private lives, whilst still deciding they want to use special code words such as ‘monkey slut’ to identify each other.

So, this rare example of a British homegrown drama that manages to be smart, funny, well-written, entertaining and to function as a drama should be a cause for celebration, you’d think.

Not entirely, however. For some of it fits into the dubious category of ‘underclass drama’, alongside the likes of Shameless and This Is England ’86 – which is not accidental at a time of welfare cuts, social unrest and economic stagnation. Sadie Wearing, an academic specialising in gender theory, culture and media at the London School of Economics, recently argued that Misfits’ success ‘related to a widely-recognised re-emergence of a vicious discourse about class…it feeds into all this discourse at the moment about the value of the deserving poor versus the undeserving poor. This is the kind of thinking that characterises and sometimes caricatures types, such as young women that drink or single mothers. When you put something like that on TV you can end up reaffirming these ideas.’

Well, I suppose that ticks the box marked ‘relevance’ on whichever impact assessment academics have to fill out to get funding these days. As it happens, the superpowers and subsequent predilection to murder aside, the kids in Misfits are actually a pretty tame bunch: they joke about sex more than they have it, muck around out of aimless boredom and break inane rules imposed on them arbitrarily and enforced capriciously. Much like the middle-class kids in The Inbetweeners, except one set of them lives on council estates and gets dubbed anti-social.

The skill of Howard Overman’s writing in Misfits, and this is almost certainly what lies behind the show’s popularity, is that it follows a great tradition of comic books: taking the fantastical and putting it in a mundane setting. You don’t get more mundane and everyday than a bunch of council-estate kids on community service. It might seem exotic if you’re, say, an academic of gender theory, culture and media at the LSE but the reality is that Clark Kent growing up on a Mid-West farm just doesn’t appeal to the same sense of the ordinary today.

The celebration of the mundane may hardly point towards a positive strain in today’s culture of accepting limits and settling for less, but the worst insult to be paid to the so-called ‘underclass’ is to imply they should have some specially protected victim status or that superhero dramas have some causative effect on social breakdown and inequality. The revolution may or may not be televised, to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, but dear God let’s hope it’s not led by television producers. Fortunately, Overman has spared us the social commentary and has stuck to just making a very good TV series, and as a result Misfits certainly stands out in the schedules.

David Bowden is spiked‘s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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