Friday, July 22, 2011

Recommended: With BBC's Misfits, Hulu Strikes Back

Yes, yet another streamable UK series gets my recommendation, but it's not on Netflix this time. I suggest foreign stuff because I like different locations, accents, themes, and details. UK TV is welcome in part because of quality and part for lack of familiarity. This time out, I got "slacker/rebel superheroes meet a modernized John Hughes film."

If X-Men happened to NYC schoolkids, Wolverine might use his healing power to just prank people. The blandest couple ever, Jean and Scott, would probably trash rooms by abusing their powers during sex. The xteam would get into a lot of fights and make huge mistakes. So, I guess London's the same, but they curse using "the hard 'C' word" a lot (it's a slightly different meaning, but still...). And that's Misfits.

It's a misdemeanor community service version of "The Breakfast Club," only these screwups get struck by lightning. While a freak storm gives one guy the power to turn invisible when he's ignored, their probation officer becomes a strong axe-murderer and attacks them. So 5 kids with criminal records kill a guy in clear self-defense, then realize: they have no credible alibi and thus are screwed.

Misfits is full of foul language, nudity, and offensive behavior. The series has a very "punk" mentality that makes it both energetic and incredibly fun. It's irreverent, with heroes that might stumble at any time, or villains that might be hysterically-lame. Like the quick theme song by The Rapture, tho, it may get very old the 7th-8th time around...

This makes sense, as it's so loud/intense, repeated exposure can eventually wear you out. It's the sort of show where if Nathan (the ultimate jerk) got superspeed, he'd soon give crass jokes about body functions and self-love.

And the pilot hooks you in because it has such great use of horror and comedy. Much like Shawn of the Dead, this picture creates tension well, then catches you off guard by throwing in other impressive elements at the same time. Below, if you don't mind COOL SCENE SPOILERS you can see comedy, character exposition, action, tension, and horror.

And learn Italian too!

A lot of engaging fiction has famously used different personalities and difficult relationships to engage the audience. Star Wars, Macbeth, the Wire, Farscape, the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Office, Seinfeld, The Taming of the Shrew, Seven Samurai, The Three Musketeers etc. Here, a loudmouthed twerp says the filthiest words to mock the "quiet, possibly crazy boy." It's dysfunctional high school UK x-men. Sorta.

The cast: Simon, a now-invisible kid that's creepy and so hard to read you don't know if he'd hurt toddlers or is just cripplingly different from everyone; Alisha, a spoiled man-eater that brings out the basest desire with a touch; Kelly, a future Hell's Angel's chick who hears thoughts; Curtis, a disgraced track star who chose the wrong night to want to try coke, and turns back time when he feels regret; and, finally, the obnoxious Nathan, who can't figure out what his new power is!


Forget the forthcoming "The Avengers." They got a cursed Norse god, an alcoholic metal arsenal, a rage-fueled green monster, and a super-boyscout from the '30s. Would one of them find they can't break up with their girlfriend because they feel too bad to let it happen, but as a reflex that they can't control? Or that touching their boyfriend turns the guy into an aggressive, amnesiac hyper-pervert?

It doesn't just appeal to somebody young at heart, this entire series uses f-ed youth in writing and direction, and the stories are too entertaining to deny. In one episode, three leads need to block a deadly sound - we get to watch and hear them get ready...

Techno/house, idm/emo and pop. Sweet. Best of all, the audio switches between the individual tracks as we're in the perspective of each! This wild approach to storytelling is well-played, as an outside perspective shots that play the dialogue our heroes can't hear, with the muted sound of ipods in the background. That, like Misfits, is so cool.

Look more closely at the cast: Curtis seems like a hard-working kid with ambition, but the rest are a mess. Kelly punches anyone who offends her, while Nathan is just a lanky, mean-spirited, infant. Alisha's totally self-centered, and Simon is an obsessive, ambiguous creep. Forget saving the world, the "heroes" are too damaged, selfish, and/or clueless to help themselves.

Yet Misfits oozes a fun, modern style that appeals to me. That's strange, since it's from late 2009, but hey, foreign licensing is a pain. The soundtrack is usually great, the regulars act like people you probably (love/hate to) know, and it mixes wit with its filth.

Take what I've described up to now and remember that the writers add and stir 5 relatable jerks with (a) distinct, strong personalities (b) a lot of friction, and (c) no plan for the future...  The appeal and intended audience is kind of obvious - it's pounding, not hitting, many of the same buttons as "Skins."

But try this big quirk: these super-powered people don't use their abilities much. It's new for both cast and audience, so it makes sense, as the players don't know how it works. Or the "gifts" are limited, in the way that Curtis needs to feel personally sorry to change history.  In Alisha's case, the show quickly does mess up whether she can control men's desire or only arouse it until it's toxic. It works for a while.

After 7-8 episodes, tho, a critical mind will wonder why the leads have nothing else going on. Or the way someone might threaten, say, Alisha - and you can just tell she'll get captured without using that whole "ultimate lust" thing. Zoom-ins on a face will seem increasingly silly to some. For me, the sparing use of super-powers actually feels nifty, credible, and not like a budget issue. At least, when it matches the Misfits' own logic, it's fine.

Having seen the show, let me point out a hidden, weird aspect: you will just assume that the leads are teenagers. One is a track star on his way to the Olympics, while another is that weird kid from "American Beauty." They drink, do drugs, listen to music, act like idiots, and screw. Given that none of them seem to have jobs, your brain says "they must be 15 to 17, tops!"

But they also don't go to school, either. I know the US' 21 y/o limit is high, but even Nathan gets served. & how early can you kick a kid out in England? 18-21 y/os would wonder why they got powers, while these kids neither wonder nor analyze themselves (Alisha=a seducer, duh). Well, the audience can do the analyzing, so it's ok for viewers. Still, the premise gets shaky when the cast lives 5 years younger than their ages; all out of school with no jobs, or life, or other friends?

I'll give you the benefit of my experience: BBC show=6 eps per season, and the 3rd begins in Late 2011. More importantly, the 2nd run suddenly has (a) convenient writing with poor use of several regulars, (b) a surprising dependence on pretension and sex, (c) laziness and (d) a horrifying overuse of the breakout role, the foulest, most childish guy ever. These flaws combine with repetition and under-development, so Misfits' strengths fade down the stretch.

No joke. The audience learns about the players more quickly than they do, so they'd either never hang out so often or they'd hang out more, but in more than 2 locations. They'd certainly ditch Nathan, only turning to him rarely. That would've created a nice tension. When you realize that every episode goes back to the Community Service Center, (no, "Centre"), this sounds like a scripted sci-fi reality show, for Pete's sake!

Problems like that become full-on blindspots later. S2 has an absolute overdose of "Nathan" being more "Nathan" than ever before. Beyond him, look at Alisha. I love that the show is low-key about the use of powers (or their fx budget), but Alisha's lust-touch virtually disappears. It took a backseat or seemed inconsistent before, but people chase and she runs. If she's knocked out easily, her power's only there when it makes for dramatic(!) tension. This is pretty lame.

I might trash the later material, but I get it: Misfits just never added more brains to the never-forgotten heart of the premise. Even dumber, oversexed and repetitious, it's still unexpected, clever, funny. Given the dirty content (in intent, not just visuals or words), I guess a chunk of the target audience won't care that their show never worked out its kinks and is now an often methed-out version of itself, like "Iron Man 2." And Nathan probably grows on anyone, if just a bit.

As much as the show exceeds its budget, I guess the writers' room never did. The gradual result is awkward/amusing/painful junk that just happens. And since the show can seem anarchic and punk (and existentialist) to the extreme, there's already room for the show to waste time or shout out one or two ideas.

Still, there's a lot to like about the foreign system of TV. These short runs mean that there's little time to waste on a clip show, much less a 16th story that should probably focus on the origin of a popular character. Misfits' writing is more focused, and any single entry has to advance the master arcs while (generally) reaching an immediate conclusion. 

Even within one episode, you'll find that many moments are simply left off-screen, and many problems will boil down to the most immediate and urgent setbacks. The first 46-minute tales play effectively, boldly, and each crisply resolves its problems. Figuring out Nathan's deal is awful fun, yet in the end, Misfits gets stuck up its own backside and becomes lazy. When series 3 starts, and I'll follow reviews to see if it's a sophomore slump.

I hope so. Since it's not American, the cast is not made up of improbably-attractive Caucasians. 2 of the cast are good-looking, and a 3rd seems like a scary Tobey Macguire. It's nice to see a woman who's definitely not anorexic having a romance with a tall, gawky kid. This is no Fox/WB teen series.

But, and I smile as I write this, you will love the first season unless you're so easily offended that you can't recognize intelligent offensiveness. You probably will look up songs used in the show and be surprised by this weird new take on things you've probably seen before. And you'll have an incredibly sweet, "mature" ride, laughing hard all the way, if you stop after the first ep of Series 2.

The first 6 episodes are available already on Hulu, for free. Even if you are not American, I assume a few of the accents may be so tough that you'll be glad the site provides subtitles. And Misfits is not available on Netflix, even if you could buy series 1 off Amazon Instant.

I have to think: it's good to see people breaking away from Netflix' stable. Now that everyone seems to be focusing on the streaming market, Amazon not only offers Misfits for purchase, they just signed a deal to acquire the same massive CBS library that Netflix picked up in February.

For purposes of this review/recommendation, Hulu wins the prize with this freakishly unique show. Because of the nudity and cursing, you'll have to be able to sign into Hulu - use a Hulu account, or sign in through facebook or twitter. It's worth the trouble, trust me.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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