This series comes as an extremely late entry in the 'Best of the Year' category, but E4's new youth orientated comedy-drama “Misfits” has, actually, already made it to my 'Best of the Decade' list on the strength of these first six episodes – and this from a person who usually breaks out in a nasty rash, merely on sight of the words 'youth orientated'! The initial publicity push for the show didn't exactly fill me with hope: “Skins” meets “Heroes”, was how it was sold; or, slightly more wittily, “Heroes” with ASBOs! E4's usual teenage-centred roster of programming is, in the main, a truly hideous concoction, brewed from the festering end-of-decade dregs of U.S. Reality-based trivia TV (invariably involving Paris Hilton), old episodes of “Friends” on constant rotation, and the occasional piece of 'new', self-produced teen programming like the aforementioned “Skins”, of which, it is safe to say, this jaundiced, middle-aged reviewer was not exactly the biggest fan!
The basic premise of “Misfits” does indeed sound like it should offer very little but, at best, a poor parody of “Heroes”, mixed with painfully dour and unfunny social satire: five young offenders, reluctantly thrown together on one of the Government's new Community Payback schemes, find themselves suddenly developing strange superpowers after being caught in a mysterious storm.
Writer and creator, Howard Overman claims he started work on the project well before “Heroes” even hit UK screens, but there are undoubtedly echoes of that popular U.S. series discernible in the type of superpowers some of his main protagonists begin to develop — invisibility, the power to freeze and rewind time, immortality, and mind reading — the genius tweak to the formula introduced by Overman's script, though, is to be found in the way the powers are used to reflect and amplify the varied personality traits and defects of the characters themselves. Thus, for instance, the painfully shy, socially isolated Simon (Iwan Rheon) is granted the power of invisibility – hardly a positive outcome for someone who struggles to avoid being ignored by his peers at the best of times! Sure enough, when invisible, not only can no one see Simon, no one can hear him either — a poignant metaphor for the very problem that has led him to end up on the scheme with anti social behavioural order in the first place.
The other four misfit characters consist of Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), once an up-and-coming athlete who was all set to represent Britain in the 100 meter sprint at the 2012 Olympics – until he and his then girlfriend got caught in possession of a class A drug, resulting in Curtis being banned from the sport for life. Now he spends his time re-watching old video tapes of his former career, wishing he could turn back the clock and correct his former mistakes. No surprise, then, that Curtis gets the power to rewind time itself whenever he feels stressed. But it's not an easy power to control, as he soon finds out, and Curtis could end up making things even worse. Meanwhile, super chav Kelly (Lauren Socha) looks like prime fodder for the Jeremy Kyle show: a boorish, obnoxious girl yob with a violent temper prone to flaring up at the slightest hint of any perceived 'disrespect'. What could be the last superpower such a person would benefit from receiving? The power to be able to hear everyone's thoughts, of course! Alisha (Antonia Thomas), meanwhile, is the quintessential spoilt 'princess', defining herself completely by her looks and by her ability to attract the opposite sex. After the storm, though, any person who touches her is instantly overcome with a powerful urge to have sex with her on the spot! Lastly, there is Nathan (Robert Sheehan): an egotistical, attention-seeking, thoroughly irritating but mercilessly quick-witted head case, whose constant need to be the centre of attention is somewhat blunted by his apparently being the only one of the five who did not receive any superpower in the storm.
The strength of the characters themselves is what drives all six of these episodes and it's what is at the heart of the quick triumph of the show. Establishing strong, sympathetic characters in a very short space of time is always a tricky prospect for even the best of writers, but Overman succeeds here, not only in making you care completely for his creations by the end of the first episode, but in creating empathy for a bunch of people who wouldn't normally strike one as being at all sympathetic. They're all an apparently rather selfish and unpleasant rabble at first glance, exactly what you'd expect from the phrase 'young offenders'. But it is the apparent gimmick of their having these amazing superpowers which, oddly enough, enables the viewer to get under their skin rather more quickly than would normally be possible. With razor-sharp, often irreverent (and deliciously sweary) humour and occasionally real poignancy, Overman's script cuts to the marrow of what makes these people tick, but never gets remotely sentimental about them. There is, after all, a dark side to most of them.
The performances from all five of the central cast members are exemplary, even though most of them are relative newcomers. Particularly standing out from the crowd (especially in the first few episodes) are the performances of Robert Sheenan as Nathan and Lauren Socha as Kelly. Sheenan was last seen in a rather more serious role in “Red Riding” but here he gives an electrifying comic performance as Nathan – the kind of character who would be a pain in the arse to have to deal with in real life, but becomes a hilariously charismatic anti-hero by the final episode. Newcomer Socha is an absolute joy here as Kelly, a character who could so easily slip into cruel parody and come across as little more than a Vicky Pollard or Lauren from “The Catherine Tate Show” clone; an easy target, in other words. Instead, the interplay between she and Nathan soon results in one of the most unlikely friendships on TV. Iwan Rheon's performance is also incredible. Simon is a sympathetic character – intelligent and sensitive, but his inability to form relationships threatens to lead him down a very dark path indeed, and by the last episode, his invisibility power provides him with plentiful opportunities for some rather creepy, stalker-type voyeurism.
There was little in Howard Overman's previous script-writing career to suggest he was going to come up with such a bitingly funny show as this – and the show is one of the funniest things on TV this year, as well as being, at times, one of the creepiest and most suspenseful as well. Previously a jobbing writer for generic shows such as “Hotel Babylon” or “Merlin”, Overman looks set to become as distinctive a voice in his own right as, say, Russell T. Davies. If anything, he succeeds in mixing Sci-Fi with humour and subtle satire much better than Davies does in “Doctor Who” and its adult spin-off “Torchwood”. The six scripts are finely honed to perfection, weaving character development and an ongoing storyline in which the five offenders try to cover up the murder of their probation officer at the community centre (he turned into a “28 days Later” style rampaging zombie after the storm and tried to kill them all!), and hide it from his suspicious colleague and girlfriend Sally (Alex Reid), while at the same time having to deal with a host of other weirdness caused by the storm: Nathan's mother's boyfriend thinks he's a dog (a little dig at “True Blood” here, perhaps?) but he doesn't actually transform into a dog – he just scampers around stark bollock naked as though he were one! There's also a baby with the power to make young men want to be its dad, and a pretty helper at the OAP's community dance who reveals a rather unusual secret during sex! It's not until the last episode, in fact that we get anything resembling a full-on, self-contained plot line, in which our five unwilling heroes try to thwart a sinister group called Virtue, who's leader has gained the power to turn young people into responsible, cardigan wearing young adults (only iPods worn with the volume turned up to maximum can protect one from the signal)! All this and the group still has to do all that Community Payback service – picking up litter, removing graffiti, repair work at the community centre — as though nothing has happened!
Most of the business that would usually form the backbone of any normal Sci-Fi series is routinely ignored here: what caused the storm and why does it provide some people with superpowers but not others? How come no authorities seem to know about what has happened? Also, surely there should be people who really do have bad character traits (murderers, thieves, etc.) who would also have some pretty negative powers. Presumably all this is still to be explored in the already confirmed second series. This first bunch of episodes is fantastic though, with not a weak one in the bunch. There's loads of adult humour, lashings of sex and the occasional dollop of horror to help the mix go down. The cliff hanger reveals whether Nathan has a superpower or not and leaves him in a rather precarious and unpleasant position.
This 2-disc DVD set from 4DVD features all six episodes in excellent anamorphic transfers and also includes about an hour's worth of extra features. A 'making of' documentary is split into smaller featurettes covering the casting process (in which directors Tom Green and Tom Harper are interviewed along with the five actors playing the main rolls), and the filming of specific scenes covered in depth, namely the storm sequence from the first episode and the rooftop climax of episode six, as well as all of the footage from the OAP's dance sequence, which was shot all in one take. Also included (although not on my early review disc) will be Simon's phone videos in their entirety (we see only snippets in the series).
“Misfits” seems to have taken off pretty quickly. The quality of the writing and acting was immediately evident from the off and with any luck this show could run and run; it fills a space in the market opened up by Charlie Brooker's Zombies-in-Big Brother comedy-horror drama “Dead Set” from a few years ago, except that the concept holds the prospect of developing over a number of series yet. If you didn't catch this during its initial E4 run, you won't be disappointed by this brilliant DVD set.