Deracinated TV: Watching Misfits in America
Last month, I was in need of a new show. Upon the recommendation of Lainey Gossip and my Twitter feed, I decided on Misfits, a show about which I knew very little, save the following:
1.) It is British.
2.) It is about teenagers.
3.) I couldn’t obtain it through strictly legal means.
So I did what many a technologically savvy, underpaid, ethically muddled media studies scholar has done before me: I found it on the internet. It’s widely available on YouTube, via BitTorrent, and through other streaming sites of dubious legality; suffice to say I watched the first season (six episodes) in its entirety.
For those unfamiliar with Misfits, it follows the lives of five British teens of unspecified age, all of whom have been sentenced to perform public service after committing various small crimes (the specifics of which are revealed over the course of the season). During the first day of their service, a massive electric storm forms over the city, striking the five teens, their supervisor, and, as we later learn, hundreds of others in the city. The bestowed each of its victims with specific powers. For our main characters, it is clear that their powers stem from personality traits before the storm: an intensely reserved character can become invisible; a hyper-sexed female is suddenly able to cause anyone she touches to desire immediate sexual intercourse. But this is no made-for-TV X-Men: the dialogue is tart and whip-smart, the plotting is clever, and the acting is spot-on. Misfits is superbly entertainmening, no matter how you classify it.
Within five minutes, I realized I was profoundly clueless about this show, particularly in terms of industrial and cultural context. My cultural blindess was straightforward: the intensity of the accents made me feel an immediate need for subtitles (unfortunately, the pirates failed to provide any for me). I didn’t know the slang, I didn’t know how old these kids were supposed to be, or if this was an accurate portrayal of community service. I didn’t know what city (or what type of city — suburban? Exurban?) this was supposed to be. I didn’t know that the “boot” of a car was the trunk, to what part of anatomy the word “fanny” referred, or what a “chav” was. I didn’t know if the slight differences in accents should indicate something about the characters’ class or immigration status. How was that supposed to influence the way that I read and understood the narrative? I consider myself a moderately cultured person (I’ve lived in France; I’ve travelled through Europe) but that didn’t mean I could pick up on the messages that most of the intended audience — that is to say, Brits and members of the “commonwealth” — would receive as a matter of course.
The industrial blindness was even more striking, especially as a scholar of media industries, invested in the specifics of production and distribution. Yet for various reasons (in large part related to my choice of dissertation topic), my knowledge is almost wholly limited to Hollywood. The little logo on the corner of the screen said “4,” so I knew this wasn’t a BBC program. Bumpers as the end of the show promised new episodes of Glee, offering a modicum of insight into the type of audience the channel was courting. But what about the nudity, sex, lewd humor, and profusion of profanity? And the repeated use of the “c-bomb” — one of the few remaining “sacred” words in American vernacular? Did Misfits air on a premium channel, a sort of HBO? If not, how did the producers get away with it? I know that France allows nudity on television in everything from yogurt commercials to sitcoms, but this was no simple smattering of breasts: the narrative was crass and obscene, albeit hilarious. And who wrote the show? Was the showrunner known for other series? Did any of the actors have star images that might influence the way that viewers would receive their performances?
Faye will address many of these questions in her post tomorrow, but for now I want my lack of knowledge to stand as a testament to the ignorance of an otherwise well-versed industry and cultural studies scholar. As media content becomes increasingly fluid — deracinated from its original flow and “intended’ reception through global and digital flows of information — it’s imperative that we think through what such “cluelessness,” for lack of a more appropriate word, means. How much am I missing when I watch Misfits and other non-American television, and how much does it matter? How has bittorrenting, streaming, and other novel means of obtaining non-domestic media made this question particularly pertinent today? Finally, what are the implications — both for the show’s potential future in America, and for Americans’ future citizenship in the global mediascape?