E4’s Misfits: Heroes with an ASBO?

News Simon Brew 10 Nov 2009 - 23:12
E4's Misfits

We catch a preview screening of E4’s new superhero show, Misfits. So is the first episode any good?

Tomorrow night, Channel 4's sister station E4 begins the transmission of the kind of show that doesn't seem to get made in the UK at all. Billed, depending on whom you talk to, as Heroes with an ASBO, or a British superhero tale, it's a programme that kicks off with six young people doing their community service. If you were pitching it, you might immediately think of Skins clashing with the superhero genre, but fortunately there's more than that to the show.

At first you're sat there thinking that it's a demographically diverse collection of people, with their emotions fitting in neat and tidy pockets (right down to the apparent Vicky Pollard clone), but this is actually a smarter basis than you first give the show credit for. For writer/creator Howard Overman takes this starting point - along with a very cheap special effect - to fashion a tale of very down to earth and confused superheroes.

We got to see the first episode of the show at Channel Four the other week with Overman in attendance, and in the Q&A afterwards, he confessed that he wasn't a big comic book fan at all. Given that his background thus far has been in writing TV episodes of shows such as Hotel Babylon and Merlin, you may not be thinking positive thoughts by this stage.

And yet Overman, for whom Misfits was a project he was trying to get off the ground for some time, is actually the key asset here, and clearly in charge of the material. Because once he's set up his characters, and once he's got us thinking that there's an element of same-old, same-old, he brings in a lightning strike, and his key characters gradually become aware that they've got superpowers.

They're not just conventional superpowers, either. The cleverness here is that Overman has given his characters powers that directly relate to their emotions. There's no magic appearance of a cape, and no intention of sending these heroes flying through the sky (as Overman joked, they wouldn't be able to afford it on an E4 budget anyway). Instead, you get the shy one in the group is the one who finds out he has the power of invisibility. The sex-mad woman has the power to make herself irresistible just by touching someone (it's not as tackily done as you might fear, either). The mouthy one can read the thoughts of others. That sort of thing, but we don't want to tell you too much more.

Now, again, you might not think that there's anything majorly earth-shattering there. But a couple of things really make this work, and the key one is Overman's script. First and foremost, it's actually very funny. His snappy dialogue - which you might think veers towards overly sweary, even though it's nothing you wouldn't hear sat on the school bus - serves his characters well, and while there's a rawness to the cast, that serves Misfits really quite well.

Secondly, Overman balances his budget well. The first episode of Misfits is, for the most part, centred in one or two locations with just a small company of actors (keep an eye out for Robert Sheehan, who's front and centre of many of the episode's best moments). Yet from that, Overman wrings a lot, and builds the tricky genesis episode up very well. It's fun, snappy, and even though it took five or ten minutes before I really clicked in to the show, it's absolutely got me tuning back for episode two.

I like too, incidentally, the fact that Overman was candid in the Q&A that he has no intention of explaining what's caused the special effect that's led to the superpowers. He's taking a Groundhog Day approach here: you never explain the conceit that's brought the characters to where they are, and instead concentrate on their reactions and where they go from here. There are, after all, very, very reluctant heroes, who would happily ditch their powers in a second if they could. They don't even seem to go through the phase where they enjoy them for a bit. What's also interesting is that Overman admits that the world he's created allows lots of other people in the vicinity of said lightning strike to be affected with emotion-based powers of their own, as the show expands.

He's given himself an interesting platform to build on here, and we're told that it builds up to a big finale at the end of this season, with work afoot already on plotlines for a second (assuming that the ratings come in well for the first).

Misfits is an idea that could have gone wrong in different hands. But this is a tightly written, and well-directed show (you'll get a good jump moment out of the first episode if you're in the right frame of mind), and one that already demonstrates an awful lot of promise. It's certainly worth giving episode one a run, and if the ambition of the scripts continues to build, we might have a strong Thursday night treat here to get us through the winter months...

Misfits is showing on E4 on Thursday nights. The first episode screens on Thursday 12th November.

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