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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (7/10/12) 12:19am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Misfits [1x01-1x04] [minor spoilers]
Books::  <none>

Misfits [1x01-1x04] [minor spoilers]
This is the British dramedy about a group of young petty criminals who get endowed with super-powers.

I joked early on that this was a show that made me hate Heroes even more than I already did.  And it's true -- Misfits covers the same territory that Heroes did, but it does it so masterfully that, by comparison, Heroes feels like an unimaginative five-year-old playing with action figures.

But it's also demonstrating to me that maybe I hated Heroes for the wrong reasons.  I hated Heroes for structural reasons: there were no limitations keeping its supers from being omnipotent, it over-powered its villain way too much, it abused time travel until its storyline was an inscrutable Gordian knot.  I also hated its ponderous voiceover monologs, unwillingness to really commit to its stakes, and its complete ignorance of every comic book about superheroes.

Those are valid reasons to hate Heroes.  But Misfits demonstrated there were even-more-basic things I could hate about Heroes.

Misfits reminds me of that whole tradition of using superhero stories to examine the flawed, anxious lives of realistic teenagers.  Sure, there are superpowers, but it's the craziness of being an adolescent that gives the story its weight.  (I'm mainly thinking of Spider-Man here, but I recall that it's not the only comic like that.)

And to make that work, Misfits has to make sure its *characters* work.  If your story is essentially "Weasel Boy fights the villain intent on destroying the world," then Weasel Boy can be a vaguely virtuous cipher.  But if your story is essentially "Weasel Boy deals with his day-to-day life, oh and also superpowers," then your superhero has to be a real person with relatable problems, and those have to be defined with some specificity and verisimilitude.  That character needs flaws -- probably quite serious ones -- or that person will just be blandly likeable.

You can argue that, yes, Heroes tried to do that, too -- but this only makes Misfits show it up even more.  The heroes from Heroes had problems in their lives that were vaguely defined.  We only knew enough to know what the problem was -- "she's an outcast at school"; "their marriage is in trouble" -- and the show took no delight in answering "the passover question" (okay, how is *this* troubled marriage different from *all other* troubled marriages?).  Also, these were almost always problems that came from without.  There was never a sense that these heroes had flaws that were creating problems for them and hurting their lives.

Also, it's very difficult to make this style of story work if the threat they're facing is on the level "someone is going to destroy the world" (or "Sylar is going to kill everybody").  If the threat is that big and that general, then you kind of hate the heroes (and the story) for dwelling on personal problems.  "Just suck it up and stop Radioactive Man from burning the planet to a cinder, okay?  Gosh!"  So it strikes me as wise that Misfits starts with a murder in self-defense -- heck, it *starts* with defeating the Big Bad -- and then follows the consequences of that with tense, relentless, Breaking Bad-like attention.  It's about that, not about saving the world (at least not yet, anyway).

Okay, that's enough about Heroes.  I only prattle on about that forgettable misfire because Misfits is such a complete contrast.  This isn't "vague, good-natured TV-pretty people get superpowers".  Our central cast is almost willfully unrelatable.  Even Nathan, our comic relief and in many ways our viewpoint character (so far, it seems he receives no powers, but I suppose we'll see) is a truly insufferable prat.  And the show doesn't pull its punches the way an American TV show would.  The crimes Kelly commits are not fun or glamorous or even endearing (stealing Tony's car?  ugh!).  The drug use is not glamorous.  Simon's social problems are not endearing (feeling up Kelly while she's unconscious? ugh!).

And yet that's what you have to do to get to a story that means something.  If your writing is timid and focus-grouped and most of all afraid to make your heroes do anything bad, then you wind up with fluff.  The victories feel hollow, because your characters have no real demons to face.  And I'm not even saying you need the sort of desaturated "grittiness" that Misfits has.  LOST was almost candy-coated in its stories of improbably pretty people facing soap-opera-ish problems, but it wasn't afraid to take the people you identified with to some bad places.  (Think about it: once you hated Jack, you could do some interesting things with him.)

This is not to say Misfits is a realistic slice-of-life -- you can definitely see the seams.  Yes, the central cast are obviously set up to be as sharply contrasting to each other as possible.  Yes, it seems improbable that one of them should be a track-and-field Olympic hopeful.  Yes, it's silly that all of our central cast would be at the same club in the episode-four flashback.

Oh, and also, superpowers.  The show has no "rules of magic", as far as I can see -- the magical storm does something along the lines of giving people powers according to what they (however secretly) want, but beyond that, it's a matter of doing whatever will make the story go.

But once one accepts all those impossible things, the show plays its characters as realistically as it can, and it's not afraid to (as the screenwriting saying goes) put these people up a tree and throw rocks at them.  It ends up sharing something in common with (of all things) Freaks and Geeks, where the show is at times almost unwatchably awkward and sad, but then when a moment of victory arrives (say, Curtis's decision to save his friends at the end of episode four), it's absolutely triumphant.

I'm not sure how I feel about Alisha's power.  Yes, I get how it relates to her character, but it seems like any story involving that power is going to be, well, rape-y.  I'm pleasantly surprised that it leads to some tender and sweet moments between her and Curtis.  But still, having rape be just a brush of the hand away at all times... that's more unsettling than perhaps the writers intend.  Or maybe it's a sign that I don't really grok how prevalent the threat of rape is to all women at all times.  I'm curious to know how fandom generally feels about her character, and how her power is used as a plot device.

The big disappointment, of course, is that this is a very short season, so I only have a few more episodes to watch of it -- probably one about Simon, and one about Kelly, and one to wrap up?  Ah well.  Conciseness is a virtue.

For next time:  well, I'm in Chicago, and I have no TV set, so I suspect everything's on hold for a while unless I feel like watching hulu on a small-ish computer screen.

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Date:Tuesday (7/10/12) 11:14am
I think one of the really fun things about Misfits is that all of the ASBO kids' powers are things that every teen pretty much fantasizes about, and they all more or less turn into curses, none more so than Alisha's. Who would guess that being sexually irresistible could turn out to be one of the worst - and most isolating - things that could happen to you?
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