If you’re wholly intolerant to science fiction, adult situations, or raw language, then Misfits is not for you. The show could most readily be described as a fantastic hybridization of the BBC show Skins* and NBC’s strong-starting but fizzle-finishing Heroes. Six young people of an indeterminate age are assigned to the same community service detail as punishment for their various acts of criminal delinquency. During their first assignment, a strange thunderstorm pops up and blankets the area first with boulder-sized hail, then with ominous lightning. All five youths and their supervisor are struck by said lightning, but survive unharmed, if not unchanged. This is, like any superhero origin story, the part of the premise that you just go with.
Your suspension of disbelief is rewarded straight away, as the action picks up and the character of these kids comes into sharper focus. They don’t realize they have powers for a little while and meanwhile “The Storm”, as it is referred to throughout the series, hasn’t just effected them, but others as well. I won’t spoil the principle event that drives the plot of the first season forward, but it’s a real-world problem they must now use their otherworldly abilities to try to solve. These social outcasts literally have no one to turn to, and must band together because of their shared proximity to what’s happened.
Misfits excels because of fantastic writing, stellar filmmaking and great casting. The Mrs and I watched all six episodes of the first season in nearly one sitting. It’s a truly remarkable, captivating series. The characters are well drawn, immaculately cast, but most importantly they’re believable. They react not necessarily in the way you might expect them to, but in ways that are informed by who their character is, what they want and most importantly, in the insane context of their situation. The unexpected is simply surprising, rather than a random, unmotivated non-sequitor. The writers avoid a couple of cardinal sins of sci-fi writing. Firstly, the audience doesn’t get ahead of the characters. We’re not sitting around waiting for them to discover some key piece of information or witness some key piece of plot that we saw 20 minutes ago. Many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation are guilty of this — something I hadn’t been aware of before listening to Wil Wheaton’s fabulous podcast for his book, Memories of the Future. That Columbo-style story structure just doesn’t work anymore, and especially in science fiction where you find an audience hungry for both detail and plot velocity.
The second sin masterfully avoided by the writers of Misfits is the sin of context amnesia. Whenever the kids encounter something out of the ordinary, their first assumption is that it’s related to The Storm. Of course it is. That’s the premise of the show, but it’s also what any rational human being would assume if they’d been given super powers by some singular, shared event. If something weird is going on, it’s probably related to that really big, really weird thing that we all experienced earlier. Duh. It’s so basic, but many shows miss this entirely. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve yelled at my TV during an episode of Eureka when Sheriff Carter will witness something extremely out of the ordinary, recount it to the people at Global Dynamics, only to have them never believe him!. The Eureka creators put us in this town where something unexpected, whimsical and usually dangerous happens basically every day. Yet, the people who live and work there are completely incredulous and dismissive of anyone (especially Sheriff Carter) who reports something out of the ordinary. It’s as though they wake up every morning and forget that they live in Eureka, the weirdest town on earth. This drives me crazy! Thankfully, Misfits doesn’t try to hide what you already know, and its characters actually have memory of what they’ve previously experienced. They know that The Storm almost always explains some part of what’s going on. By simply embracing that, it frees the writers to better explore how and even why the storm is influencing them, the people around them, or the situations at large.
With great writing building the foundation, Misfits also has a fantastic look and production value to it. I’ve been watching it in HD on Hulu Plus through my Xbox 360 and it just looks so good. Not in the vibrant, colorful way that Heroes often looked, but in a more grounded, gritty aesthetic that makes everything look like it’s been shot with only ambient light. From the lighting, to how the shots are framed, to the creative cinematic vignettes between scenes, I just couldn’t take my eyes off off it. It demands to be watched, but without any distracting, gimmicky, 300-esque, gratuitous camera work that takes you out of the moment. The DP’s, Christopher Ross and David Raedeker, are masters of their craft.
Great camera work is pointless without stellar performances though, which the cast of Misfits deliver every single episode. The show is arresting enough just in its cinematography and storyline, but the way the actors inhabit these roles really sets a new bar for television performances. There are little touches of improvisation and personality that the actors bring to their characters, especially Robert Sheehan, who plays the lead role of Nathan Young. You’ll not find a more lovable, smart-ass delinquent in all of cinema and television. The whole cast is so natural, so inhabitive of their roles that even now I have difficulty thinking about these people having regular lives that don’t involve them reading minds, rewinding time or turning invisible. They help create this incredibly immersive world full of mystery, possibility, pain and triumph. No wonder the show is already winning awards.
So if you haven’t yet seen Misfits, I highly recommend giving it a go. It’s available on Hulu and other web sources, and the second season just kicked off with new episodes each Thursday. I guarantee, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
*not to be confused with the MTV version of Skins