Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Misfits, Mutant Powers and Brilliant Story Telling

If there ever was a golden age for broadcast television, that day has long passed. For all of the channels of content available, most of it is virtually unwatchable. Beyond the endless reality shows and voyeuristic adventures in train wreck family soap operas, the crafted story shows invariably combine recycled ideas with unimaginative vision and predictable story exposition.

But it's not like that everywhere. Consider some of the television shows that we get as spill-overs from the UK, shows that were so good that the US entertainment industry takes them, rehashes them, and serves them back as pabulum. The Office, Being Human, and Sherlock are three perfect examples. You could probably lump movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo into that category too.

Misfits probably falls into a different category. While the show is awesome, it's hard to imagine it being rehashed for television here in the States. Beyond the language and the adult themes, there's a level of Britishness that seems essential to the feel of the show.

One aspect of the show that also seems very British is the killing off of main characters and cycling through new sets of actors in the show. The show is currently airing season four and the cast looks quite different from season one. For audiences that grow attached to actors, characters and story-arcs, this can be challenging.

Personally, I feel like season four is struggling, hampered in ways that also left season three a bit weak, and not simply because some of the cast has changed. For me, it's more about some underlying aspects of the story. In season one, we have our cast imbued with mutant powers. While this is pretty common story line, these powers are part of what really carries the story.
  • The heroes are essentially young delinquents, improbable heroes
  • The powers are not classic super-powers, instead they tend to be odd, sometimes bordering on useless
  • The powers tend to be manifestations of personal issues or dreams, from the probation worker with anger issues to the old woman who dreams of reliving her younger days. Part of the magic of this is that element of character reflection and development -- what does this power say about the underlying issues that the character has, and how does power over that effect their behavior.
Season one is all about the characters discovering their powers and coming to terms with them. It's the classic story of coming to terms with new found power, but with a wonderful overlay of comedy and realism. Season two continues along those lines, with characters and personalities evolving, but with an increasingly public presence to the aspect of powers. By the end of season two, they essentially ran the series through a reboot, resetting some of the characters and their powers.

Fundamentally, this aspect of changing powers disrupts what I think is an important aspect of the story. Where once you had a potentially interesting window into the underlying character, the mutant power as a story-telling vehicle becomes more of an accessory with potential for good and bad. In season three, the Misfits team was able to use the accessory fairly effectively, juxtaposing powers in some hilarious ways -- I can't recall any story that explored the downside of being a brilliant rocket scientist in such a unique way. And yet, since aspects of these powers were essentially arbitrarily assigned, there's a disconnect.

With season four, powers have become an almost throw-away element in the show. Recognition of powers and exposure to them seems like it's become commonplace, lacking surprise. And since it's treated that way, it seems like it's lost that powerful thematic character exposition element. What does weak telekinesis say about a character?

One of the good and bad aspects of Misfits is that the series is short by US standards. The first season is only six episodes, seven in the second, and eight in the third. This probably helps keep them from beating an idea beating an idea to death just to support a story arc, and when it's good, we always feel like we could have used more episodes. But short may not save them from hitting the cliche wall. We're up to episode seven in season four, so by historical standards we're closing in on the end of the runway. Me, I'm still waiting and hoping for this season to really take off. 

I started writing this post while I was still watching the season. Since that time, we reached episode eight for season four, and that appears to be the end of season four. In that way, season four was a bit of a letdown. I expected more. I don't know what the future holds for this series, but I'm worried that we may have already jumped the shark. All that being said, it's a great show and I recommend it highly.

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