Issue Six teaser: Mel Campbell ‘The Power of Friendship: Social Control and Personal Politics in Misfits’
So for our final teaser for Issue Six before its release on July 4th. Mel Campbell reviews the award-winning British TV series Misfits, which successfully welds sci-fi, drama, comedy and social critique.
When Misfits first aired, critics widely compared it to the American sci-fi drama Heroes, branding it variously: ‘Heroes with an ASBO’, ‘Britain’s answer to Heroes’, and ‘Heroes for chavs’. In a more admiring vein that perhaps reflects dissatisfaction with Heroes’ later seasons, Misfits was also dubbed: ‘What Heroes should have been’ and ‘Heroes, minus the suck’.
The series do have striking similarities. Both follow a motley group of mostly youthful protagonists who are mysteriously granted superpowers. Both depict characters grappling with the implications of their new-found abilities, while evading antagonists who are threatening them. And both are set in a heightened version of the real world, where quotidian dramas mingle with paranormal episodes.
Heroes, however, is explicitly grounded in the American tradition of superhero comics, especially the angstier and grittier style epitomised by Stan Lee’s work on Marvel Comics such as Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men. Heroes reflects superhero comics’ Manichaean themes and preoccupation with ‘origin stories’, and its major source of narrative drama is whether superpowers should be used selfishly or altruistically.
The series also mirrors comic books in its episodic structure and its visual language. The UK series that best explores these American themes is the 2008 ITV sitcom No Heroics, which exploits for comedic effect the possibilities of comic-book superheroes living openly in mainstream Britain. By contrast, Misfits deliberately refuses superhero genre conventions. While its characters joke about how they could harness their powers (‘There’s always one who can fly!’ says a hopeful Nathan), it’s treated with dark humour:
Simon: What if we’re meant to be, like, superheroes?
Nathan: No offence, but in what kind of fucked-up world is that allowed to happen?
Alisha: I did not sign up for that.
Kelly: What if there’s loads of people like us all over town?
Nathan: No, that kind of thing only happens in America.
But Kelly is right. The Misfits gradually encounter many others whose powers – acquired in the freak storm – reflect their personalities, habits and desires.
The pleasures of Misfits lie in the unfurling friendships between its five central characters. Successive episodes reveal more about the circumstances that landed them in community service, and show the group banding together to escape immediate dangers, bantering and squabbling their way from distrust and enmity to respect and understanding.
Misfits also offers a shrewd, exuberant debunking of moral panics surrounding the UK’s ‘ASBO generation’. Introduced in 1998, the Anti-Social Behaviour Order was a Blair Government initiative restricting behaviour deemed to harass, alarm or distress the general public. ASBOs prohibit individuals from behaving in specified ways; violation of the order is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years’ jail. They’re imposed for petty offences including public drunkenness, theft, vandalism, noise pollution, littering, billposting and fare evasion.
While the oldest ASBO recipient to date is an 87-year-old man forbidden to be sarcastic to his neighbours (and who subsequently violated the order three times), the orders are widely perceived as a panicked crackdown on youthful pleasures – drinking, street art, break-dancing, congregating in public places and organising unlicensed dance parties. However, they also disproportionately target the socioeconomically disadvantaged and the mentally ill.
Being the subject of an ASBO can be either a social stigma or a perverse badge of pride. Early in season one of Misfits, a humiliated Curtis reminds the group he doesn’t have an ASBO, repeatedly insisting, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ Meanwhile, as the group dumps Tony’s body into a shallow grave, Nathan quips: ‘I’m pretty sure this breaches the terms of my ASBO!’
- Pre-order Kill Your Darlings Issue Six or subscribe to the print journal here.