Literal Misfits

Posted on August 30, 2011 by

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans often bemoan the fact that no television show of BtVS caliber has been created since Buffy‘s last season. They wonder if an heir to the Slayer throne will ever appear on the airwaves again. Then along came the British superhero dramedy Misfits. Though it seems more similar in subject matter to Heroes, Misfits has many similarities to Buffy in its commentary on the inner lives of teenagers. This connection has been discussed already, particularly in Rowan Kaiser’s recaps of the program on The A.V. Club, so this post will serve to weave those observations together in a way that brings to light Misfits‘ themes of privilege, disillusionment, and burgeoning adulthood.

Misfits uses the same mechanism as Buffy – making the teenage experience literal – in order to deflate the superhero trope. In Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery explain:

In the world of Buffy the problems that teenagers face become literal monsters. A mother can take over her daughter’s life (“Witch“); a strict stepfather-to-be really is a heartless machine (“Ted“); a young lesbian fears that her nature is demonic (“Goodbye Iowa” and “Family“); a girl who has sex with even the nicest-seeming guy may discover that he afterwards becomes a monster (“Innocence“).

Similarly, the privileges and disadvantages the misfits have before the storm become their powers after the storm. For instance, Curtis enjoys celebrity status as a star athlete, while Alisha gets preferential treatment because of her good looks. On the other hand, Simon suffers by being constantly overlooked. Yet after the storm, Curtis and Alisha’s powers complicate their good fortune, while Simon’s powers make him feel more fulfilled. Beyond major privileges and disadvantages, though, most characters’ powers are a literal manifestation of a trait or skill they already possess. Observe the following handy-dandy chart (yeah, I made it myself!):

Name Trait/Skill Power
Jodi Alopecia Make others bald
Rachel Evangelical Christian Convert others with the sound of her voice
Vince Tattoo artist Control others by tattooing them with his mind
Tim Gamer Thinks he is in a Grand Theft Auto-style video game
Jessica’s father Overprotective Kills his daughter’s love interests
Bruno Gorilla Gorilla-like man
Brian Job at a coffee shop Lactokinesis (can control dairy products with his mind)
Lily Cold demeanor Cryokinesis (can freeze liquids with her mind)

Much humor stems from the often-ridiculous nature of these powers – the ability to make someone bald? To telepathically manipulate half and half? Really? This in itself destabilizes the trope of the ultra-competent superhero. Yet it’s not the absurd nature of the superpowers that really make these characters unlikely saviors, but the fact that the superpowers are intensified version of people’s already existing flaws. This makes them laughable inheritors to the world’s troubles. Not having discovered his power yet, Nathan serves as an audience proxy at the end of the pilot episode, cynically asking, “You lot, superheroes? No offense, but in what kind of fucked up world would that be allowed to happen?”

Much is made of the teenage years as a time when one feels invincible, the closest most average people get to being a superhero. But the misfits have no such illusions. Perhaps they did once, which led to the crimes that landed them in community service, but now that they are there and have been saddled with real superpowers, they realize just how screwed the world is, and how screwed they are. It’s a comment on coming to reality – coming into adulthood and realizing that you are not the best and brightest, and the world may very well conspire to keep you that way.

The end of their community service feels like a chance to become real superheroes, to have jobs and become successful and put their crimes behind them, but they realize that the world they are going into needs saving from people more powerful than they. It needs better social services. It needs more jobs. It needs politicians who care. According to Nathan, “We have just been shat out onto a huge pool of piss, with all the other long-term unemployable.” A bunch of mind readers and invisible men aren’t exactly capable of fixing all of that.

They are given the chance to adhere to the day-saving superhero ideal, what with their public reveal in 2.6 and the flash forward to Curtis in a cape in 2.2. Yet both of these instances actually deflate the superhero myth. Curtis’ flash forward is to a costume party, not some “With great power comes great responsibility” moment. Furthermore, the misfits have never used their powers to help someone, and when they are made public, they don’t start on some sort of humanitarian crusade. No, they become coddled moneymaking machines for a ruthless manager, who has collected a gaggle of these celebrities. No one is coming to save them, and they are incapable of saving themselves.

This message sounds extremely cynical, especially in light of the many light-hearted moments found in Misfits. The “this world is so screwed, even its superheroes are incompetent narcissists” view is certainly darker than the “love, friendship, and girl power” themes of Buffy’s Scooby Gang. But that’s what makes it such a perfect successor to the BtVS throne. Whereas Buffy partied with witchy lesbians and slayed vampire boyfriends through the fun and funky late nineties, the misfits of Misfits are thrust into the inhospitable early 2000s with only their overblown flaws to help them. It’s an accurate coming-of-age tale for a generation of young adults for whom there are no jobs to be had, a black democratic president is channeling Ronald Reagan, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Not even the so-called superheroes.

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Posted in: Television