Misfits, very British Teen TV
In a week when discussions of US and UK televisual differences and distinctions, particularly around class, accompanies the broadcast of US remakes of Shameless (Showtime) and Skins (MTV), its great to get a chance to talk about a British show that owes a debt to both, but in my view is arguably superior.
Misfits‘ industrial context is key to understanding some of the issues Anne addresses. It’s shown on E4, a free-to-air sister channel to terrestrial broadcaster Channel 4. Targeted at a youth demographic, it primarily showcases US Teen TV alongside Friends reruns and reality formats. E4’s distinct brand identity feeds off Channel 4’s status as the younger, edgier terrestrial channel, with a reputation for quality UK drama and US imports. Alongside ensemble teen drama Skins and teen boy sitcom The Inbetweeners (whose remake is currently at pilot stage with MTV), Misfits demonstrates a successful shift in recent years to E4 commissioning original British programming. It’s a niche channel, but it makes a lot of noise. Ratings for The Inbetweeners third season beat out programming on terrestrial channels, Skins has won an audience award BAFTA (the UK Emmys) and last year Misfits won the BAFTA for drama series to gasps of surprise and delighted cheers.
E4’s brand identity is key to the tone that Anne notes in Misfits. It’s a bit cheeky, a bit snarky, it prides itself in not taking things too seriously. The ironic tone of E4’s continuity announcers and promotions – particularly of its US imports – presents its programming through a framework of peculiarly bombastic phrasing (“chuffing”, “ruddy hell”, “telly box”) and light mockery. This allows US Teen TV’s glamorous melodramas to retain their escapist emotional pleasures, yet reframes them within the channel’s pose of ironic detachment in order to assimilate them into E4’s ‘insincere’ British youth TV flow.
It’s British shows operate by drawing from yet distinguishing themselves against US Teen TV. Their combination of excess and the everyday, surrealism and reality, is drawn from British television’s legacy of social realism and anarchic comedy. This is set against the escapist pleasures, gloss, melodrama (and perhaps underlying conservative ideologies) of shows like 90210, Glee and One Tree Hill, the contrasts serve the UK shows’ poses of authenticity (Look how casually we do drugs! Watch us walk around in our dorky knickers!). Whilst US Teen TV can happily air in daytime slots, E4’s British youth TV usually airs at 10pm (though later when transferred to Channel 4), enabling the language and depictions of sexuality that Anne notes.
I think that Misfits gets away with its content because it is nearly always framed as blackly comedic, through its play with representations and its witty dialogue, together with the suspension of disbelief that its genre elements bring. It somehow manages to be sincere and snarky all at once, and we care oh so much about these characters. Partly, this is creator and writer Howard Overman’s distinctive dialogue and tone, which he is finding difficult to transfer to the more generic arena of BBC quirky detective series with recent misfires Vexed and an adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently. Partly it is the excellent performances from virtual unknowns (though with major roles in Spring Awakenings and Channel 4’s Red Riding amongst them) and the chemistry of the group, who hate each other but secretly might care a tiny bit.
Nathan may be rude and lewd, perpetually self-aggrandising (to the others disgust), but Robert Sheehan is so effortlessly charismatic, you would follow him anywhere. Kelly may be a ‘Chav’ – a role Lauren Socca has fine tuned in social realist dramas The Unloved and Five Daughters – but Socca makes the frustrations behind the tough mouth clear, and hilarious. Compounded by her power to hear others thoughts – and what they think of her, a person society brands and dismisses – Kelly is kind of caring, kind of smart but still an unrepentant gobby cow. Though compared to the boys’ powers (Invisibility! Rewinding time!) the girls have kind of a rough deal – don’t even get me started on the punishment of the sexualised young woman by giving her a power that basically amounts to fighting off rape when touched.
Anne’s difficulty with placing both the location, the langauge and the context is interesting, as what is universal here becomes very culturally specific when consumed abroad. This cultural discount is arguably what is driving US remakes, in preference to imports. (I’m interested in the channel brand identity mash-up that will occur with MTV’s remaking of E4′s British Teen TV in service of their own push for ‘authenticity‘). Misfits is often tagged ‘ASBO superheroes’, and the orange jumpsuits of community service make a handy uniform for our reluctant gang, more likely to accidentally kill someone than save them. ASBO (Anti-Social Behavioral Order), like Chav, is a very British bit of slang to derogatorily mark a character as part of the undesirable underclass. The pleasure of Misfits is its presentation of our outcasts, the apathetic can’t be bothered generation, suddenly handed great power and responsibility and generally, just messing it up. How very British.