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Monday, September 9, 2013

Crackpot Theory: 4 Reasons Why BBC's Misfits Doesn't Work.

They say you should never send a letter angry, that you should sleep on it first and see if you feel the same in the morning. I wouldn't call this article "angry" but it's really negative and I know a lot of folks out there love Misfits. I don't want it to seem like I'm taking the piss out of a critical darling to be a stand out and act contrarian. I ain't no Armond White, I just can't let critics continue to gloss over what, to me, are positively massive creative failures.

I have tried for years to get into BBC's teen superhero soap, Misfits. Everyone I know who's seen it thinks the world of it and I'm including professional critics in that lump. I had started watching it when it first popped up on hulu years ago. I devoured the first season, got a little ways into the second, and then stopped. Last weekend I gave it one more shot and I finished season 2. I finally realized why I had dropped it so suddenly all those years ago.  My relationship with Misfits is a lot like the one I had with Lost. I was perfectly entertained when I was watching it, but as time went on and I deconstructed what worked and what didn't, I became exponentially more frustrated with it.

It's not because I think it's "bad." Quite the opposite, it's a very accomplished show. The fact that they gave actors this young, this material, and they all nailed it, is incredible. It's a show worth watching for the acting and relationships alone. The way the it approaches teenage sexuality and drug use is both refreshing and original. They never make too much of a meal of either. They're kids, they have sex, they smoke pot, they take pills at raves, big whoop. I loved that about Misfits, it's why I don't mind it when someone says it's one of the greatest shows ever made, because these are the most honest teen relationships I've ever seen put on TV. Central character-wise, this show is wonderful... but there are deep, serious, problems with the other half. The hero half. The underwritten, appallingly sexist, nonsensical, and disappointing hero half.

1. The Donovan Conundrum:

"That's not how it works!"

You should never introduce a premise on your show that you don't have at least two good ideas for. Curtis got the power of time travel initially, but there was only one episode that really explored it. The writers created a world where time travel exists, where the entire cast knows Curtis can go back in time, but they only had one good story to tell. Being an ensemble show, this was easy to ignore for a while, but when tragedy struck (and it struck plenty), the entire cast turns to Curtis and does this. Every damn time they begged him to go back, and every damn time he would shrug his shoulders and give a bullsh*t excuse as to why the story had to develop. And it was bullsh*t. The characters even said so after a while, which meant the writers also knew it was bullsh*t. Eventually there comes a time where they have the opportunity to


(switch powers.)


And that was absolutely the right thing to do... but that was after almost two whole seasons of BS shrugging for the price of one pretty good time travel story.

2. Antonia Thomas is...


The black female lead's super power (again, initially) is that when any man touches her, they immediately want to rape her. It's... stunning. I mean, Jesus, at least the bad guys had to wrestle wonder woman's lasso away from her before she became a bondage fantasy. I was convinced the writers wouldn't have done this if they didn't have something to say about women in distress, but they don't. She uses it to wedge herself into the life of the guy she has a crush on and then whimpers about her powerlessness for the rest of the first season. Again, stunning. 

The saving grace is that Thomas owns the role and gives it a strength that couldn't have existed on the page. I'm sure if they cast an actor less talented than her they would have been raked over the coals by now, but seriously, I' m shocked they haven't already. Maybe there was a grand point they were trying to make, but the set piece it called for wasn't in the budget. I refuse to believe this character was left so ironically powerless and half baked on purpose. But for the first two seasons she was.

3. This Ain't Groundhog Day...

There was a movie in 1991 called Delirious. John Candy was a soap opera writer that wakes up inside the world he had written. Using his typewriter, he makes it exactly what he wants it to be, but is ultimately unsatisfied. It was not Candy's finest, but it serves as a great example of what can happen to a good premise with the wrong excecution. This is gonna get pretty dry, but bear with me.  

Two years later came Groundhog Day, a great example of a good premise perfectly executed. But why? What does Delirious have to do with Groundhog Day, and what does any of this have to do with Misfits? Character choices. Delirious falls apart because Candy's character forces beautiful women to fall in love with him while painfully inserting himself into an upper crust lifestyle that fits his character about as well as a black glove on O.J. Simpson. Wow, I really reached for that metaphor, but don't tell me it doesn't fit. I mean... it doesn't fit... screw it, moving on.

In Groundhog Day, the world was technically supernatural, but Murray fit in it. The world also had a srict set of rules that were easy to understand, yet they facilitated entertaining and original circumstances. Murray couldn't just wish himself rich, he had to memorize the perfect moment to walk off with an armored car's payload every day. It was funny, it made sense, it moved the story forward, and you'd never seen anything like it. This is one of the biggest problems with Misfits. It's story solutions are rarely, if ever, earned. They just sorta happen.

"Wait! So have you been doing this long, or are you just arbitrary story development?"
From day 2 the premise of Misfits starts to weigh it down. They all know they have powers, except for Nathan, and they all make a pact to stay in their community service position so they don't get scooped up by the government and tested on for the rest of their lives. That's also when they stop acting like they haven't experienced the greatest moment in the history of biology and start being themselves again. I don't have a problem with that set up; it's a comedy for the most part, and I shouldn't expect to take a show with invisible, mind reading, and time traveling rape-makers all that seriously.

But it isn't long before the show wants to be taken seriously. They start to whine about being not being noticed, or not being able to touch people, or not being able to fix all things they want to fix. Again, that's fine, but the guys never do anything about it. They never question why they have powers, or where they came from. They just putter around one off villains and various community service activities. The show becomes frustratingly inert and unfulfilling. Massive cults form out of nowhere, a man goes on a GTA style murder spree, dozens of other violent and public events occur. But hardly anything ever changes, and when they do, they happen immediately with no foreshadowing or consequence. They all reek of writer's block and desperation.

The beginning of season 2 tries to fix this, with a story arc of a mysterious parkouring urban ninja that wears the words deus ex machina on his sleeve. That arc is pretty entertaining and it gives the vastly superior second season a satisfying through line. But while it offers the illusion of the possibility he/she might reveal something (christ, anything)  about who, what, or why, the world has become what it's become... I can't really expalin what he/she does without being a spoiler. But know that it leads to another convenient, unforeshadowed, and un-earned writer's tool.

4. ...But It Could Have Been.
 Here Be Spoilers.

There's a reason I wrote this diatribe, it's because I care about Misfits. There is so much they got so right, it kills me to see so many amature mistakes being made over and over. But I would have kept my trap shut, if it wasn't for the second season's last 2 episodes, far and away the best of the series up to that point. I'm not going to harp on how easily the gang decides to join up with the talent agent and get famous after slavishly keeping to their pact of anonymity for so long (did I mention it was because they were wanted murderers?). Because it was about damn time the world reacted to people getting powers, and like Groundhog Day, it made sense while being funny.

The Lacto-kentic (milk mover) was a spectacular villain from top to bottom, I'm sure they got a BAFTA from his origin montage alone. He manages to be both funny and threatening, which is a crazy fine balance to master. If that was to be the finale, it would have been worth it and I would have been far more kind. Lacto dies here, which is a shame as he would have made a great arch villain if they'd found a way to stick with him. He could have formed a evil league of mediocre evil that would murder anyone with cooler powers than theirs, or something. But the BBC is notoriously fickle with renewing, believe me, I'm a Luther fan. So I can understand why they wanted to end it like that.

But it's the Christmas episode after that which bothers me. That's what drove me up a wall. That's why I'm bothering to write all this. The villain in it was a stroke of absolute genius. I was ready to take back everything I'd said. It was the perfect villain for the world of Misfits as well as one of the most ballsy condemnations of organized religion I've ever seen. Remember, this is a teen comedy, so that sucker punched me pretty hard.

But they kill him off after one episode. I was so confused and angry. I would have stuck with Misfits through thick and thin to see what that villain would be up to. He could have taken over the world and it would both be realistic as well as inspired black comedy. Of course that was also the episode where they played off the lead misfit (one of the best actors and most consistently entertaining character) and of course that's when I was done. I could only watch such a promising show shoot itslef in the foot so many times.

You should absolutely see Misfits if you want to see drek like mtv's teen wolf done right. But anyone who says it's one of the greatest shows of the last 10 years is an apologist at best. But don't just take my grousing at face value. Please, see for yourself

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