What legacy does Misfits leave behind?

Feature Caroline Preece 17 Dec 2013 - 07:00
Misfits

Now that it's left our screens for good, Caroline reflects on how Misfits changed UK sci-fi TV...

E4’s seminal sci-fi dramedy Misfits has finally closed the doors to its community centre for good (or until there’s a movie and/or an American remake) and, while its end didn’t make the impact it may have done a couple of years ago, it’s leaving a massive gap in the television schedules. After five years on the air, the series is still being talked about as being something unique, never looking tired when measured against fresh new shows hoping to ape some of its early success. There’s a reason for this – there are no other shows like it; it doesn’t look as if anyone’s even tried.

Back in 2009, Misfits was a bit of a revelation. Originally billed and advertised as Skins-meets-Heroes, it managed the impossible by appealing to both mainstream audiences and an appreciative geek demographic, with its clever take on the superhero genre just as sharply written as the teen drama shenanigans working alongside it. This was rare as, unlike the family-friendly adventures of Doctor Who, Misfits was brazenly niche. It didn’t want to appeal to a Saturday teatime audience or exist quietly as Merlin continued to – it went straight for that notoriously fickle teen demographic with something new, intelligently written and genre-bending.

This was back when Heroes was popular enough to still be mentioned by television writers trying to stuff the show into a box, when comic book fans could only dream of a Marvel mega-franchise. Show creator Howard Overman tapped into the era's paranoid ASBO obsession and, by making the Community Centre group the heroes of the story, went beyond anything Shameless had attempted to do. We were encouraged to look up to the so-called ASBO Five as charismatic anti-heroes, even if we knew better, and their orange jumpsuits and irresponsibility was a cathartic alternative to the spandex-clad heroes we were used to seeing.

Though regarded as creatively strong, in comparison to the special effects budgets and visual splendour of US network sci-fi, British genre TV has always found it hard to shake the impression of looking a bit naff. With the few pennies E4 had, Misfits managed to just about look the part, and established an impressively creative visual identity in its first episodes. Uninitiated audiences turned off by polystyrene monsters and disjointed CGI creatures could look past genre and see the interesting stuff that was going on underneath.

The careers the show has launched over the years is also something to note, with Nathan Stewart-Jarrett currently starring in Utopia, Iwan Rheon on Game of Thrones and Robert Sheehan moving to teen fantasy romance in the Mortal Instruments franchise (among other, better, things) just to name a few. We can also thank the show’s success for giving us Howard Overman, who has since given us series like Dirk Gently, Vexed, episodes of Merlin and, most recently, Atlantis. New talent is always a good thing, and Misfits has given us more than its fair share.

The mainstream success of Misfits, as in most cases, faded away once the novelty had worn off, but a hardcore base of fans remained with it through some decidedly rocky patches. It was these fans who saw the difficulties once the cast started to leave the series one after the other, but they were also able to witness the direct impact Misfits has had on both TV and cinema screens. Would anarchic, genre-defying movies like Kick-Ass and Super (both released a year later) have existed without Misfits? What about Attack the Block? Quite possibly, but the show being what it was, it’s hard to imagine it didn’t contribute a small amount to that particular wave of superhero films and adaptations.

What made Misfits so interesting, and so ripe for new stories, was how well it married the dual parts of its ‘dramedy’ label. The comedy was biting and the powers were often very silly, but the show was also dark and could often get quite twisted. Similarly, you had fun, comic characters like Nathan existing in the same world as dark and complicated ones like Simon, and yet those two elements of the show never collided in a way that wasn’t charming. A seemingly harmless power like being able to control dairy products could easily kill our entire gang, but a traditional supervillain might prove completely innocuous.

The fact that Heroes was put forward so often for comparison was because of how few original superhero characters we actually get to see on screen. We live in a world where properties are only greenlit if they have a proven fanbase and, aside from the marketability to existing Skins fans and the cinematic track record for comic book movies like X-Men and Spider-Man, there was no obvious reason for E4 to take a chance on Misfits. One glaring thing about the show’s departure is the fact that E4 is now a genre-free zone and nothing has managed to make the impact that series like Skins and The Inbetweeners did during the same period.

So why hasn’t anything tried to take Misfits’ place? The easy answer is that nothing could, and that the success of the show was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments. But history teaches us that everything has its successors, and that’s what makes the absence of any youth-targeted British science fiction following Misfits so disconcerting. Like Being Human last year, could the end of Misfits signal the end of an era for British television, with both shows existing as products of their time? Distinctive and unique, Misfits is something that you’d imagine would refuse any notion of a remake (though that's not to say one won't be attempted).

Perhaps there’ll never be another show like Misfits, but the truth is that we probably don’t really want there to be. As much as we all might like there to be more creative and successful home-grown genre telly on British screens, what made the series so important was its utter refusal to be categorised, boiled down or labelled. No one knew what was going on with Misfits until they actually tuned in, and that’s what made it such a fascinating watch from week to week. Even in its later, slightly weaker years, it made a sport out of defying all of our expectations, and that’s exactly why it was loved so fiercely by its fanbase. 

It was, itself, an outright rejection of the burgeoning (now world-conquering) superhero movie genre that have defined a generation with their mainstream crossover appeal, and Misfits may one day be pointed to as part of this puzzling transition as much as something like Doctor Who or the first Spider-Man trilogy. It was a series that arguably didn’t really care who it appealed to, but that somehow caught the attention of a huge variety of disparate groups, finding its way to cultural relevance and collective memory via nothing more than quality and entertainment value. That’s something to be treasured, and something that may not happen again for a long, long time.

Read our spoiler-filled Misfits episode reviews, here.

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