Misfits, very British Teen TV

January 13, 2011
By | 3 Comments

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.


Tags: , ,

3 Responses to “ Misfits, very British Teen TV ”

  1. Anne Helen Petersen on January 13, 2011 at 4:53 PM

    Faye, you somehow answered all of my questions in 800 words, even if you didn’t define “fanny” for me. Thanks again for agreeing to participate!

    I have yet another series of industrial question: what’s the general length of series? Is a six episode arc standard? Is this level of seriality typical for E4?

    Now that I’ve completed Season 2, I’m even more compelled by these characters — and (no surprise) Simon and Alicia in particular. The amount of narrative complexity at work in the arc of the masked man was truly a marvel to behold — with a payoff far greater, in my opinion, than any reveal in Lost.

  2. Faye Woods on January 14, 2011 at 4:36 AM

    I found that the second season worked hard to bring a greater level of complexity to Alesha, beyond ‘she shags’, and really made consider the emotional toll of her power. I was surprised to find myself caring quite a lot about her by the end of the season. I’m very interested in how they will play out this larger scale arc that has been quite carefully seeded.

    This arcing seriality is common, to varying standards – like US TV – across Brit youth drama (Being Human’s ‘big bad’ arcs not so successful). Skins is an ensemble drama but has its episodes from single characters POV and telling one story, which are tied into ongoing story arcs, which apparently because it was easier for inexperienced writers to tell. I think in season 1 Misfits was tying closer to that kind of storytelling (intertwined with its ‘freak of the week’ structure), but became more confident in its seriality in season 2.

    I think 6 episodes is the UK standard for single-authored series for drama and sitcom, with runs up to 12 for multi-authored. Skins has 8-10 episodes from a writing team of established and ‘young’ writers. The UK has a different production ecology to the US and has been hit hard by the recession, thus you only get high-budget stuff in co-productions (Downton Abbey) and short runs (e.g. Sherlock’s 3 eps). Misfits season 1 felt micro-budgeted even by E4 standards, which I think contributed to its inventiveness.

  3. Leshu Torchin on January 15, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    Thank you for this discussion of Misfits (a programme I’ve really come to enjoy) and more importantly, thank you for addressing the issue of E4’s brand identity. It has grated on me terribly that American viewers will often casually refer to such shows as The Inbetweeners and Skins as ‘BBC’ because they see them on BBC America. Of course, the usurpation of brand identity is an interesting one, even if I lack the competence to comment on it.