Deracinated TV: Watching Misfits in America

January 12, 2011
By | 19 Comments

Note: This is the first of a two-part series addressing the reception of British television series Misfits.  The second column, written by Faye Woods, will appear tomorrow.

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?


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19 Responses to “ Deracinated TV: Watching Misfits in America ”

  1. Jason on January 12, 2011 at 8:02 PM

    I remember thinking in 1999 or so, whenever it was that Napster first came out, that artistic content from all over the world, made freely available to consumers all over the world, would do two things: 1) piss a lot of people off, and 2) improve those areas of art (music at the time, but now also television and movies) that were being widely and illegally distributed. Much as libraries improved both reading and writing, I thought that file-sharing would make consumers smarter and more discerning, as well as provide artists with a wider range of influences from which to draw and build upon. Looking at the past 10 years or so — which I think has been an abnormally excellent decade for music, television, and movies — one could easily argue that this has been the case.

    My other thought is that the new environment — with BitTorrent and netflix and all the other media channels both legal and illegal — both minimizes and maximizes the consequences of ignorance (or cluelessness, as you call it). Before, a show like Misfits was not available to you, but it also wasn’t available to anyone else in your social circle, so it wouldn’t have mattered. The consequences, as they were, were minimal — but if someone did happen to see the show, in a trip to England perhaps, then the consequences would have been maximal because there would have been no remedy — you would have been unable to see the show for yourself without traveling to England. Now, it is more likely that someone will have seen a great show that you have missed, but it’s also far easier for you to see the show, and in fact to do so immediately.


    • Anne Helen Petersen on January 13, 2011 at 11:12 AM

      These are excellent points, Jason. I approach your second question somewhat differently: these days, a show like Misfits spreads through a place where it’s unavailable (such as the U.S.) not because someone has gone to Britain or Canada and seen it….but because someone has “heard,” via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, whatever that the show is good, sexy, funny, compelling, whatever. One person obtains a copy of that show via illegal means, then spreads word through his/her social network, prompting others to obtain a copy. In terms of bittorrenting, the spread is crucial, as the more people with torrents of the file, the quicker and easier it is to download. In this way, a combination of what social scientists call “weak” and “strong” ties (ties with people that you don’t personally know or casually know; ties with people with whom you are close) creates a fandom.

      One might argue that this is how any fan or taste community is formed — people suggesting other people consume something. Yet a show available in the US, whether through broadcast or cable, will still have a section of viewers who just “happened” upon it. No one “happens” upon a bittorrenting show; you have to seek it out. The entire American Misfits fandom is thus composed of active, tech savvy consumers – can’t you see the advertising executives salivating?

      I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this, but I think it’s something to consider as we think through the way that fandom for such texts develops.

      • Jason on January 13, 2011 at 12:48 PM

        There is another element to this fandom, I think, or at least to this kind of fandom’s intensity: when one watches a show that one is not supposed to be able to watch, that increases the connection one feels with the show. Furthermore, if watching this show involved committing a crime — downloading it from a bittorrent site, say, instead of buying it from Amazon (along with a region-compatible DVD player that will actually play it) — then the connection becomes that much stronger. Add in an entire social community of strong and weak ties alike, all of whom are watching a show they are not supposed to be watching, and all of whom probably engaged in illegal activity to do so, and you have yourself a fanbase whose rabidity is probably at least a little related to their individual and collective complicity. I’m not condemning this behavior, and I don’t mean to suggest that forbidden shows only gain followings because they are forbidden. On the contrary, I’m participating, and I’m participating because you convinced me that it’s a show worth watching. But when I do sit down and begin Episode 1, I will probably feel a small but distinct enthusiasm, a kind of little thrill, that I would not have felt if it aired Thursday nights on ABC. And maybe that extra little thrill makes a difference in how such shows are talked about and shared.

        It’s a bit like sneaking into an R-rated movie as a 13-year-old: the movie may not be that good, but your connection with it will be strong, and you’ll probably enjoy that movie tremendously, and remember it fondly. And even more so if you snuck in with a group of friends.

  2. Will on January 13, 2011 at 2:09 AM

    Couldn’t you have just paused it after five minutes and gone here?

    It seems to answer many of your questions.

    • Anne Helen Petersen on January 13, 2011 at 12:30 PM

      TOUCHE! It does answer some of them, you’re right, and I did go there after the first few episodes (I also asked Faye, who’s writing the second half of the post, to help me out a bit). But what other shows can you think of that demand a trip to Wikipedia in order to orient yourself? Books, sure, but television shows generally do everything in their power to make you feel secure in your knowledge of the time period — see, for example, the explanatory titles before something like The Tudors. Even more high-brow fare such as Boardwalk Empire or Deadwood takes place in a time and place with a specific place in the American viewers’ mind. (Those shows benefit from a bit of Wikipedia extra-textualness, but they play on our established understanding of events like prohibition, the Battle of Little Big Horn, etc).

      • Jason on January 13, 2011 at 12:57 PM

        I found myself contextually lost at times with Battlestar Galactica, until I found out that the show’s mythology was based on Mormonism. And then it all made sense. And then, also, I stopped watching.

      • Will on January 15, 2011 at 12:34 PM

        Well, I think some of your queries about the show are of a different order to others.

        Whether E4 is like HBO could be easily cleared up online without any risk of spoilers.

        Who wrote the show, what authorial context and background they might bring, and whether the stars have any significant history in other shows, could also be googled for or checked up on imdb very safely.

        Other aspects I think are more complex than your post seems to imply: you seem to be distinguishing between a relatively clueless American viewer, to whom the show is a bit of a puzzle, and “Brits and members of the “commonwealth”” who would get all these references right away.

        I’d suggest that even British people within Scotland and Wales, let alone in further-flung cultures, might not immediately understand some references. “Boot” for “trunk” is surely pretty universal, but different regions have different terms meaning the same thing as “chav”, and I don’t know whether many people outside Greater London would recognise the location (Thamesmead) and its connotations.

        So, it isn’t as simple as a “Brit”/Other divide – “British” is no more meaningful than “American” in that, obviously, it brackets together multiple, diverse cultures of region, class, ethnicity, even nation.

        As for what other shows require Wikipedia – I’d suggest Mad Men certainly benefits from it, and that The Wire probably needs Wikipedia as much as Misfits? That is, I feel you can probably understand each of them just fine through context – picking up the lingo and the references as you go – but The Wire certainly isn’t instantly-comprehensible to a London viewer.

        But I suspect many Americans would also find aspects of The Wire unfamiliar to them, and would also have to pick it up as they went along. Just as living in America doesn’t mean you understand the slang of Baltimore cops and dealers, being British doesn’t mean you’re familiar with the argot of Thamesmead teenagers.

        • Will on January 15, 2011 at 12:36 PM
          • Anne Helen Petersen on January 15, 2011 at 2:15 PM

            These are all great points, Will — and I definitely don’t mean to suggest that all members of the commonwealth are part of a, er, common discourse community, but Canada and Australia do have far greater exposure to British television than most Americans, so even if they don’t necessarily live in Britain, they have a cultural memory of what things mean/stand for, if that makes sense. (Kind of like how I don’t that much about, say, the antebellum south, but I’ve seen enough texts to recognize the codes immediately).

            As for your question concerning the necessity of Wikipedia and the difference between Misfits and, say, The Wire, scroll down to Jason’s post directly below.

            • Will on January 15, 2011 at 5:33 PM

              Thanks for your response Anne, and for taking my points in such good spirit.

              I think, also, British viewers (or English, anyway) will have a greater exposure to American television than Americans do to British.

              So, I think an English teenager could easily work out what’s going on in the social networks surrounding Claire Bennet of Heroes, because s/he’s seen a mediated American high school milieu, with its cheerleaders and cliques, in so many other shows and movies — whereas an American teenager watching Hollyoaks (a soap set in Chester) wouldn’t necessarily have such a frame of reference.

              (The same would be true, I’d guess, of an London viewer tuning in cold to CSI: New York, compared to a NYC viewer tuning in to The Bill).

              I’d suggest that most English viewers have seen enough American texts to recognise the social codes and to have a mediated cultural memory that is enough to make sense of a whole range of US TV and cinema — as long as it stays roughly within those codes.

              So, an English viewer would, I would say, know immediately enough about TV and movie high schools to get to grips with Glee — but The Wire was something fairly unfamiliar except to people who’ve read a lot of Richard Price and George Pelecanos.

    • Jason Mittell on January 15, 2011 at 9:15 AM

      Great conversation. I think the “just go to Wikipedia” comment points to a lot of interesting nuances in our new media environment. The danger of going to the web for context is spoilers, as certainly the Wikipedia article reveals more than most first-time viewers want to know. We have almost limitless information available to us, but if we want some limits on that info, we still need a human guide to sort it out.

      As for Annie’s point about what other shows require us to go to Wikipedia: David Simon has actually said that his shows are built for the internet age, not because they foster online fan communities (as that’s far less prevalent than on other contemporary cult shows) but because they empower viewers to learn more about something that is obliquely presented on screen. The example he cites is the Mardi Gras Indians in Treme – it’s a major plotline for a main character, and we see a lot of Indian prep & performance. But the show never explains the tradition or context – if you want to learn more, you need to do a little research.

      I’d say such need for context is fairly typical of cinema. If you stumbled upon a Godard or Antonioni film in the video store, you’d probably not understand its importance & innovations without a contextual history and frame of reference. Film studies has been helping contextualize such works for decades – and now TV scholars need to get into the game.

  3. Christine Becker on January 13, 2011 at 10:43 AM

    I love this post and Jason’s comment, because they’re exactly in the realm of what inspired me to work on my next research project, a comparison of contemporary American and British TV. I wish I could be more specific about what the project is beyond that, but I’ve only just begun. And to say I’ve only just begun is a little embarrassing because I first got the idea for it on a trip to London back when The Office was just hitting it big (2001). The very first day I was there, I overhead people raving about a brilliant new comedy, and when I got back to my hotel that night, dazed and confused from lack of sleep, it happened to be on. Even with my hazy brain, I could tell it was brilliant. I told everyone I knew about it when I got back to the States, but it wasn’t out on DVD (and the US region DVDs in particular took awhile to come along), so I couldn’t even incorporate it into my classes yet. I also began hearing rumors of a US remake, and I was convinced it would never work: US and UK sitcom standards and methods were just too different, and the original was such a pristine object. Of course, we know how that all turned out, and that subsequently made me really want to dig into not just the concept of transnational translation, but also just how the differing industrial/cultural/regulatory/economic systems could produce different (or similar) programs. So the idea has been cooking in my brain for awhile, but now the research possibilities for my inquiries are more plentiful than ever before because there are so many online resources at my fingertips (yes, not all legal, but it’s for research purposes, so…). The material is available not just through traditional (and often re-edited) means of international distribution anymore, like DVD or BBC America, and not even just pirated files and streams, but fully live streaming sites allow me to watch overseas content in its original viewing and presentational context (legal or otherwise. Ok, probably not legal, but it’s for research purposes, so…). So I really have no excuse not to get going on this project already, and I also now get to invoke every TV scholar’s favorite notion: I don’t just want to watch The Misfits, I have to — it’s for work.

    • Anne Helen Petersen on January 13, 2011 at 11:03 AM

      I’m so excited for this new project, Chris, and can’t wait to hear more about it as it progresses, especially given the upcoming influx of Brit adaptations (something that Faye will talk a bit more about in her post — and, by the way, you and her should totally get it touch).

      Have you seen Misfits? And/or do you know if it’s available in its original viewing context via the sites of which you speak?

      (On a somewhat related note, I”m wondering about the potential liability of admitting/suggesting that we use illegal means to access research material — as you say, does the fact that we’re doing it make it okay? Certainly not in the eyes of the law, but what about in the eyes of, say, a dean, or a provost?)

      • Christine Becker on January 13, 2011 at 5:31 PM

        I haven’t watched Misfits yet (but have gotten in touch with Faye, who has already given me some great resource suggestions). I’ll DM you an answer about viewing it, just in case the provost is reading. 🙂

        • Faye Woods on January 14, 2011 at 4:42 AM

          Once I have convinced my students that they are not going to be strung up for admitting to downloading, I find that they have much more knowledge of US television and its industry than in years past, which makes for more interesting discussions (though can create divisions in class).

          Though the counter to this is that they watch very little UK TV, when their tendency towards E4 and downloading is combined, which is another problem in itself (though thank god for iplayer and 4OD. I also find that downloading really hits its steam when students get to halls and realise they don’t have any hope of decent television reception/have upside down schedules so turn to online to keep track of shows.

          • Anne Helen Petersen on January 14, 2011 at 7:01 AM

            At UT, students who use illegal downloading sites are traced and can (and have!) be levied with enormous fines. Two years ago, a few students had to pay over $20,000 a piece (I don’t know if the number was later reduced; it may have). And UT is no anomaly — University of Oregon (where I received my MA) is one of the few state schools that has maintained that they will not instruct their IT dept. to collaborate with law enforcement. My students here at UT thus watched a lot of streaming TV, illegal and legal.

            When I taught at Whitman (a private liberal arts college) there are no policies against downloading, and it and illegal streaming is widespread. It absolutely changed the breadth of programming with which students had experience coming into a television studies class.

            They’re also watching on their computers, as very, very few have televisions (mostly just those who live off-campus during their senior year, and even then, they most likely do not have cable).

            I suppose what we’re both trying to get it is the fact that it’d be really great to be able to expect our students to be well-versed television consumers, but the realities of schedules and varying levels of technological skill make it so that, just like in a film class, there will be a small handful of students who have committed themselves to the task, yet the vast majority will have but a smattering of knowledge of the quotidian television options for the ‘average’ citizen.

  4. Ami on January 13, 2011 at 4:54 PM

    Misfits is also available to watch on this site that I think is the British version of Hulu; not sure if that means it’s not available outside of the UK though.
    Also I’m pretty sure lewd humor/cursing/sex is totally okay in all British television; they don’t have the FCC, they make fun of us and call us puritans. And they say the c-word all the time. Have you seen Skins?
    I think that most things Americans miss when they watch British TV aren’t a problem and are clarified by context. It really helps to share the same language, even if we don’t share a lot of the same slang. I’m just saying this though because I didn’t really find anything confusing when I watched Misfits. (Except for “fancy dress” party; I thought that meant “formal wear,” but even in that case the show itself cleared up my confusion). I do wonder how British people receive shows like The Wire, though (someone described the show to me as “the one where you can’t really understand what they’re saying), which seems so specific to not only America, but a certain world within America. In general there’s more crossover from America to England than there is from England to America, so I think they have an easier time understanding us than we do them.
    I’d be more interested in the crossover of a TV show from a country whose culture isn’t as similar to ours. I guess I’m not expecting to see that anytime soon, even with the rise of internet TV; I know this sounds elitist and potentially naive, but it doesn’t matter if we’re able to receive media content if there’s no good media content to receive. And I know I’m basically assuming that “good” has objective value and does not simply indicate how similar it is to our own culture. That is, I’m saying that I think the reason we’re not getting Argentine television shows in the US (nor are we seeking them out on the internet) is because Argentina isn’t making good TV, not because Argentine TV shows are too culturally dissimilar to the US to appeal to us. Again, I know I’m undeniably guilty of cultural elitism, saying that the US is the arbiter of “good” television, but at the same time we basically did invent the damn thing.

  5. Rick Gershman on January 18, 2011 at 1:12 PM

    Very interesting post, Anne. I have heard many great things but have not checked it out yet. That said, considering you’re obviously well-read and reasonably cultured, I find it surprising you didn’t know “the ‘boot’ of a car was the trunk, (or) to what part of anatomy the word ‘fanny’ referred.” I’ve never been to Europe of France, but both terms–especially the latter–are instantly familiar to me and most people I know.

  6. Rick Gershman on January 18, 2011 at 1:13 PM

    …I am also quite familiar with leaving typos in my posts. “Europe OR France,” that is.