TV Review – Misfits: Season 2

CAST: Robert Sheehan, Iwan Rheon, Lauren Socha, Anotonia Thomas, Nathan Stewart-Jarret ~ WRITER: Howard Overman ~ DIRECTOR: Tom Green ~ YEAR: 2010

The Backstory: Five young offenders, brought together thanks to their enforced Community Service, are caught in a bizarre electrical storm and end up with superpowers – but the last thing they’re likely to do is use them responsibly…

What’s it about?: Their community ser2vice is approaching its end, and Nathan has just risen from the dead thanks to the discovery he’s immortal. However, there are even more powers-enhanced people affected by the storm – many of them dangerous – and there’s also the mysterious hooded figure who’s watching their every move…

The Show: Season 2 of this ‘superheroes with ASBOs’ comedy drama doesn’t mess around – it knows what everybody liked last time, and delivers plenty more of the gory, sweary and sex-heavy formula laid down in Season 1. Low-budget but surprisingly stylish, Misfits knows what its audience wants and isn’t afraid to go in some ludicrously over-the-top directions in order to deliver it. It’s an energetic and fun show that works well as a purely enjoyable (and occasionally nasty) fantasy comedy/drama, but is also capable of being a hell of a lot more than the sweary teen drama it advertises itself as, frequently tackling ffective drama and strong character twists. In fact, Misfits’ biggest strength is the way it uses the normally black-and-white morality of superhero stories to explore some very grey areas, combined with the way it lets its characters behave in unsympathetic ways and go in directions that aren’t simple good vs evil (although they’ve finally found the right balance with Nathan (Robert Sheehan), who spent most of S1 being a little too annoying).

As a result, there’s also no shortage of conflict and weirdness (especially in the excellent shape-shifter episode that opens the season), and while the series cranks up the bodycount in these episodes (making the main location probably the most lethal Community Centre in Britain), it mostly keeps a good balance between outrageous fantasy and gritty reality, and does it a hell of a lot more effectively than overblown BBC emo-fest Being Human (a show that has, on occasion, managed to out-emo some Anime shows, which takes some doing…). In fact, despite the ‘superhero comedy drama’ tag, Misfits is often most effective when it’s pastiching horror, frequently coming over as a super-profane and gory remix of early Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes – and like Buffy, it understands the importance of superpower as metaphor.

Misfits TV - publicity photoFor the most part, Season 2 is a much stronger and more focussed setup, giving us some very effectively played character drama (especially in the evolution of Simon (Iwon Rheon) and Alisha (Antonia Thomas)), and it’s largely a rollicking, entertaining and gripping ride – but there are still problems, and the quality of the storytelling remains rather variable. The main arc of the season – the identity of the mysterious ‘Super Hoodie’ who seems to know everything about the main characters – starts off massively intriguing and does pay off in a very surprising way, but feels oddly truncated and doesn’t impact on the series anywhere near as much as it should. Certain plot-twists and episodes veer towards the predictable, and the overall structure of the series is a bit murky, as it once again abruptly reboots towards the end of the season (particularly the Christmas Special, which feels more like a repurposed first episode to season 3), while you can also see scriptwriter Howard Overman starting to struggle with maintaining the ’emotional metaphor’ side of the superpowers. This happens a lot with the now-frequently-appearing villains, many of whom don’t quite have the emotional focus that the ‘powers of the week’ had in Season 1 (for example, the man who has a Grand Theft Auto-style game playing in his head – what exactly is his power supposed to be?). It’s also the case that, as with Heroes, Misfits is the kind of show that should steer clear of full-on action that it doesn’t have the budget for – the only two examples sadly come across as a little embarrassing, trying to spoof superhero conventions (especially the fight with the Tatoo artist) but instead playing as weak and badly conceived.

Of course, these scenes only stand out because so much of the surrounding series is extremely good. In fact, about 70% of Misfits S2 is genuinely brilliant and entertaining stuff, but it’s let down by the other 30%, and not helped by the storytelling this year being rather skewed in favour of Nathan, Simon and Alisha. Both Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarret) and Kelly (Lauren Socha) get distinctly short-changed in terms of storylines, with Kelly’s one character-centric subplot leading to possibly the worst and most clumsily executed moment in the whole show (The lesson? Don’t attempt to make a tear-jerking scene out of the revelation that a character has – for slightly confusing reasons – turned into a gorilla (and especially don’t try to score it with Samuel Barber’s classical piece ‘Adagio for Strings – the results will be BAD)) while Curtis’s emotional time-rewind power essentially leaves him stuck as an emergency ‘Reboot Plot’ button or shouting “My power doesn’t work like that!” for most of the season.

The show’s being enthusiastically embraced by its fans partly because it’s a superhero tale that breaks taboos with such enthusiastic glee – a glee that occasionally gets a bit self-congratulatory (especially when they dress the characters up as superheroes in episode 4 for no other reason than ‘It’ll look great in the final shot!”) –  but while it’s still tetering on the edge of being brilliant and can be inconsistent, Season 2 does tip the balance further in a positive direction. The kind of crude, lewd show that’s oddly charming despite frequently trying way too hard to shock or repulse (most notably in the overplayed birth sequence in the Christmas Special), Misfits is nevertheless building in strength and quality – and it’ll be interesting to see whether the drastic format changes coming up in Season 3 will revitalise the series further, or send it into a Heroes-style downturn…

Verdict: An entertainingly filthy take on the world of the superhero, this isn’t quite the classic that much of the geek press is proclaiming it to be, but Misfits is definitely improving, and is one of the most enjoyable adult-skewed UK genre shows we’ve seen in a long time.

[xrr rating=4/5]

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TV Review – Dirk Gently

Cast: Stephen Mangan, Helen Baxendale, Darren Boyd ~ Writer: Howard Overman
Director: Damon Thomas ~ Year: 2010

Dirk Gently

[xrr rating=2.5/5 imageset=red_star label=”Rating:”]

The Low-Down: Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams’s other bizarre creation is brought to the screen here in a brave but ultimately deeply flawed one-off drama, a pilot episode for a potential series of bizarre and whimsical sci-fi investigations.

What’s it about?: Eccentric detective Dirk Gently believes in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. He also believes in attempting to politely swindle old ladies out of money in order to track down their missing cats… but how is his latest runaway feline also connected with his old University friend Richard Macduff, a missing multi-millionaire, a time machine, and an exploding warehouse?

The Show: Douglas Adams is very much one of those ‘tricky to adapt’ authors. You only have to look at the movie version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to see how things can go wrong, and while I can salute anyone with the bravery to take on the task of adapting the fantastically bizarre Dirk Gently’s Hollistic Detective Agency to the screen, at the end of this BBC4 drama (a pilot for a prospective series) Adams remains resolutely un-adaptable.

It’s partly his unique narrative voice. It’s partly the fact that his plots were almost always mad improvisation that could go off on abrupt tangents at a moments notice (and thus don’t fit into traditional narrative structure very well). And it’s partly the fact that Adams’ universe is (despite his wonderful, spritely and creative humour) a seriously dark place, where horrible things can happen out of nowhere, and fate regularly has the last laugh. Not the kind of world-view that’s easily plugged into a quirky detective saga, which probably explains why it’s almost completely absent from this 1-hour pilot episode.

Misfits writer Howard Overman is sensible in not attempting to do a straight adaptation of the original Dirk Gently novel (especially since the plot goes in some fantastically complex directions), and one of the most surprising things about this TV outing is how much of the original novel is present and correct. He’s retooled Dirk (Stephen Mangan) as a kind of free-wheeling, quantum mechanics-inclined version of Sherlock Holmes (with a remixed and far less capable version of novel character Richard MacDuff (Darren Boyd) as his dim-witted Watson), and it’s easy to see this as a project that got comissioned in the wake of the success of this year’s modern-day reboot of Sherlock.

Overman pulls off some good lines, and there are a couple of very Adams-style bits of invention (especially the final fate of the cat Dirk is searching for), and he’s also oddly restrained in certain areas – Seargeant Gilks, a fantastically angry policeman and nemesis of Dirk, is so underplayed here as to be barely present. He also does his best to reformulate Adams’ twisty plot into an easier-to-follow story of second chances, while trying to set up Richard Macduff as a slightly dazed straight-man to Dirk’s off-the-wall insanity.

Dirk Gently 2Trouble is, if you take the darkness out of Adams, what you’re left with is a little too much of a sitcom (particularly with the scenes featuring Dirk’s elderly client), a wacky Holmes-style romp that features plenty of running around and comedy shouting, but is mainly built around a relationship – Richard and Susan (Helen Baxendale) – that we don’t care about, and don’t really believe for a second. Combine this with the fact that the ‘fundamental interconnectedness of all things’ turns out to be a shorthand for ‘hard-to-swallow coincidences’, and the plot ends up a fitfully entertaining but not exactly succesful comedy mystery that occasionally lurches into life, but too often comes to a juddering halt.

Pilot episodes are notoriously tricky, of course, and this wouldn’t be the first one to feature creaky storytelling. What sinks Dirk Gently – at least, as an adaptation of Adams’ work – is Dirk himself. Again, it’s no surprise, as Dirk is an emphatically odd character, a mass of contradictions who isn’t even the main protagonist of either of his novels, but the changes Overman makes give us a version of Dirk that’s oddly shaded and doesn’t really work. Dirk is portrayed here as a smarmy, over-confidant but occasionally brilliant trickster, and Mangan isn’t always capable of pulling off the weird cadances of Adams’ dialogue (he’s mostly better with lines that aren’t directly from the book).

Admittedly, the original character is quite definitely a con-artist – but he’s also a notoriously bad one. Most of his attempts backfire in bizarre ways (like the college exam papers he faked as a clairvoyancy scam at University that turned out to be, word-for-word, exactly the same as the papers that were set), as if the universe is constantly preventing him from getting away with it – and it’s also strongly insinuated that he’s rarely been capable of getting any of his clients to actually pay any of his outrageous bills.

Overman skips most of this, making the confidence trickster side more overt, but Dirk stops being quite so interesting, and becomes a lot harder to sympathise with. He isn’t the mercurial figure in the books – he’s just a fast-talking con artist who occasionally gets lucky. It doesn’t help that Mangan isn’t the most likeable of leads, and ending the pilot episode with Dirk using hypnotism to swindle Richard of 20,000 quid for a holiday in the Bahamas doesn’t do anything to change that.

Add in some awkwardshifts in tone, intermittent physical comedy and a general sense of inconsequentiality, and the end result is one of those loose adaptations that has its fun moments, but on the whole doesn’t get anywhere near the odd energy of the original work. It’s always possible that there may be a series – and that Overman may be able to develop this world in some interesting and stronger directions – but going by this opening outing, I’d be very surprised…

Verdict: It’s a step up from the truly dreadful Radio 4 adaptation (which starred Harry Enfield as Dirk), but a few funny lines and a smattering of inventively off-beat sci-fi strangeness does not a series make. Combine that with a miscast lead actor and this oddball confection never gets its act together for long enough to live up to its intimdating (and far superior) source material.

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