In its first two seasons, the UK series Misfits was a cleverly written, unevenly characterized, and brilliantly acted drama, subversive in how it drew upon and deconstructed common superhero tropes. In its latest season, Misfits remains a remarkable series, but for a wholly different reason: there is no other series I can recall that started so brilliantly, and devolved, in just one season, to such baffling mediocrity.
Created by Howard Overman, Misfits stars five young offenders who develop superpowers after a freak storm. In the first season, they battled probation officers and other superpowered antagonists while coming to terms with their lives and unwanted powers. In the second season, SuperHoodie, a proper masked superhero, appeared. Yet he was revealed to be none other than creepy outcast Simon's (Iwan Rheon) future self, who had traveled in time to save Alisha (Antonia Thomas), the woman he loved. The series then closed with a Christmas special in which the ASBO 5, as the show has dubbed them, seeking to return to their normal lives, sold their superpowers to powerbroker Seth (Matthew McNulty). When Curtis's (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) girlfriend died soon after, and Curtis wasn't able to rewind time and save her, they suffered seller's remorse. Yet their old superpowers had already been traded, and they were forced to choose new ones.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of season three is the reveal of the new superpowers, especially Curtis, who evades getting caught by the cops by turning into a woman, and Kelly (Lauren Socha), shown sitting across a conference table with a suited man. "These are the designs for an intercontinental ballistic missile," the man says. "Yeah mate," Kelly replies. "Check out the propulsion system. It's liquid nitrogen. It's wicked." But the man doesn't believe that Kelly created the design, and calls security to drag her out. "Take your hands off me, you prick," Kelly says, angered and affronted. "I'm a fucking rocket scientist!"
As in previous seasons, the ASBO 5 are forced into community service, and most storylines deal with them either adapting to their new powers, or facing other similarly superpowered people. Yet the faults of the previous seasons—inconsistent and uneven characterization; logic and complexity sacrificed in favor of ratcheting the drama and delivering one-liners; reliance on some racial and gendered stereotypes, especially in depictions of female sexuality—are magnified to an extent that's increasingly difficult to overlook.
The replacement of obnoxious, immature, loud-mouthed Nathan (Robert Sheehan) with obnoxious, immature, loud-mouthed Rudy (Joseph Gilgun) perhaps best exemplifies the problem with this season's character work. "Has anyone heard from Nathan?" Kelly asks near the beginning of episode one. The others inform her that Nathan's in Vegas trying to cheat money out of the casino, which is bound to end badly. And that is it. The new ASBO 5 never mention Nathan again. There's a web-only short called "Vegas, Baby!" that depicts just how badly Nathan's Vegas escapade ends, but as far as season three is concerned, he might as well have never existed, so completely is Rudy slipped into his role. This is also what makes his absence so felt. However compelling Rudy might seem as a character (and I suspect this is at least partly determined by how amusing one finds sex and excrement jokes), he isn't Nathan. And yet the show expects us to forget this fact as completely as its remaining cast of characters has.
Compared to the reaction that other dead or departed characters receive—Nikki (Ruth Negga), Curtis's murdered girlfriend, fails to merit even one line of script—the ASBO 5's thirty second remembrance of Nathan seems gushingly sentimental and sorrowful. It's not just characters from previous seasons who are retconned, but also Curtis's entire character arc over the last two seasons, during which he gradually let go of his bitterness and regret over the sudden, jarring end of his running career following a conviction for drug possession. In season three, he's back to where he began the series, carrying bitterness and anger "like a dark cloud," not over his dead girlfriend or anything else that happened the last two seasons, but over his lost chance at the Olympics. This is especially disappointing because Curtis is given some of the most compelling and entertaining storylines of the season (having to deal as a woman with sexual harrassment, learning to let go of the past by experiencing the joys of lesbian sex), yet it is difficult to care what happens when none of it will matter after the episode has ended.
Simon's storyline suffers the opposite fate, with his beginning as an outcast stalker and pervert completely done away with. In the first season, his actions, which included the murder of one of the gang's probation workers, evoked a mixture of sympathy and horrified fascination, but in the third season this is absent, and Simon becomes much more conventional. Simon had always taken his superpower seriously, displaying none of the casual, bordering on resentful attitude with which the others treated theirs. He was desperate to find a place and reason for his existence, which Misfits portrayed as simultaneously heroic and pathetic. Yet now the show seems to take his superpower just as seriously as Simon does. His storyline—resisting, but ultimately accepting, his tragic destiny—increasingly resembles the standard superhero story. Considering just how much screentime is devoted to this story arc, it makes the entire series seem increasingly formulaic.
Perhaps the only two of the ASBO 5 that don't suffer from inconsistent characterization are Rudy and Alisha. In Alisha's case, it's because she was never given a storyline outside of "fallen woman is redeemed through the love of a good man." In Rudy's case, this will probably be rectified in season four.
The show's setting and worldbuilding also suffer from Swiss cheese syndrome. To describe the Hitler episode this season—in which the only real differences between the Britain of today and one in which Hitler takes over is more surveillance and a tendency for police and military officials to perform Nazi salutes—as being inaccurate is misleading, because it implies a level of baseline realism and internal consistency that don't exist, and becomes less likely with each season.
As in previous seasons, aside from a handful of exceptions, the characters rarely exist outside their community service and occasional reluctant world-saving activities. Most have no visible means of monetary support, no outside network of friends or family. Furthermore, while Misfits has always had a high body count—the gang have killed off their probation workers so many times it's become a running gag (and, like most gags on this show, increasingly unfunny)—the sheer number of casualties this season, and the accompanying lack of investigation from the authorities, requires a staggering suspension of disbelief.
This violence, and the ensuing lack of consequences, coupled with the underlying misogyny of several storylines (most especially those addressing women's sexuality), is another way in which the show has come to resemble conventional superhero stories. Three characters are introduced in the first episode: Rudy and two women. One is characterized by her love of anal sex; the other is a vengeful harpy. Only Rudy survives past the first episode.
Then there's Alisha, the least developed and most problematic character in the show. Her main story arc in the first season, as portrayed in episode three, was a point by point reiteration of the Jezebel stereotype. And although the show never developed her as being much more than an object of desire after that episode, it at least retreated from a narrative resembling a Victorian era morality play on fallen women. Yet with season three, this type of moralizing narrative returns. Apparently, nothing that our protagonists have done up to this point (fights, stabbings, the sheer creepiness of Simon wanting to feel up an unconscious Kelly, etc.) is as horrible as Alisha having had consensual, mutually pleasurable sexual encounters. So she should apologize to Rudy for sleeping with him once and then moving on (though at no point did she ever make him promises), and also to Simon, for having such a horribly slutty past. But never fear, Simon excels at being gracious and forgiving, as a proper modern superhero should, and his love is strong and pure enough to keep Alisha from even thinking of straying again.
The show does provide one exception to this. In its treatment of girl Curtis, and its portrayal of her relationship with another woman, women's sexuality is neither policed nor fetishized. Yet the way that story arc ends, and Curtis's eventual choice of how to deal with his superpower, seem ambivalent at best.
Misfits, which began its run as a clever, subversive parody of the superhero genre, has now, in its third season, turned into an unintentional parody of itself. The writing shows flashes of cleverness, with some hilarious setups. But the jokes are becoming predictable, the subversiveness turning to conventionality, and the most consistent aspect of the worldbuilding and characterization an increasing triteness and lack of consistency. The first two seasons I would recommend, with caveats, to just about anyone. The majority of the last season, I wish I could retcon from my mind as easily as the show retcons itself.
Guria King lives in the US (and occasionally in other places). Sometimes she writes; most often she procrastinates. For more, follow her on Twitter, @guriak.