Misfits – series one

Who would have expected to find this little gem of a TV series, written and created by Howard Overman, tucked away on Channel Four’s digital station, E4? It has its flaws (especially if you like your fantasy/ sci-fi ideas rigorous), but it also has a freshness and an irresistible charm.

At first glance, Misfits doesn’t sound very promising. And its swearing, casual drug-taking, and sexual content won’t appeal to everyone either. Five young, orange-jumpsuit-wearing offenders on community service in Thamesmead are struck by lightning during a weird ice storm. The first to realise they’ve been changed is hard-as-nails chav Kelly (Lauren Socha), who is disconcerted to overhear the thoughts of others (including her disreputable dog). Next up is socially awkward nerd Simon (Iwan Rheon) who, after enduring an epileptic-like seizure, can become invisible.

The powers of the remaining three take longer to manifest. Disgraced athlete Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) can turn back time, but not to order, unfortunately, and drink-driving party girl Alisha (Antonia Thomas) elicits overwhelming lust in every man who touches her – an inconvenient power to say the least! As for gobby, smart aleck Nathan (Robert Sheehan), if he has a superpower, he has yet to work out what it is, though it’s not for lack of trying.

Others were caught in the ice storm too, among them the group’s probation worker. He has an anger management problem, and as the super powers are an extension of a person’s nature and anxieties, he’s soon on a murderous rampage. Having killed Gary, another young offender who was indoors when the strange storm struck, he goes after the misfits. Forced to kill him out of self-defence, they are then faced with a problem: what to do with the two bodies. But hiding them only sets off a chain reaction as the dead man’s grieving girlfriend Sally (Alex Reid) begins to suspect that the five must have had something to do with his disappearance…

Series one of Misfits comprises six 45-minute episodes, introducing us to the five leads and following the relationships that these initially unlikely companions forge with one another. While the five perform their allotted tasks – painting benches, scrubbing graffiti off walls, collecting litter, sorting used clothes, and ‘entertaining’ luckless OAPs – we learn what crimes brought them to this. (In Nathan’s case, it was eating a handful of pick ‘n’ mix!) Occasionally, they cross paths with others in possession of quirky super-powers – there’s even a baby who can make someone think he’s its father (though how a baby survived being struck by lightning doesn’t bear close examination). Meanwhile, notch by notch, the tension rises as Sally doggedly closes in on her boyfriend’s killers…

Each episode blends gritty realism with the fantastic, and witty, foul-mouthed comedy with drama, carrying forward the overall story-arc but also focusing on a different one of the five. First up, after an introduction to the characters and setting and a terrific depiction of the ice storm (how come no reporter ever follows up on that?), is Kelly, the most engaging of the misfits, whose tetchy, foulmouthed shell proves to contain a brave and sweet-natured young woman. Episode two brings to the fore Nathan, the mouthiest and most irritating of the five (though he does have some great lines) and the one lacking a superpower, in an unexpectedly poignant plot exploring attitudes towards the elderly.

Episode three is perhaps the least interesting of the series, as Alisha’s lust-inducing super-power has limited potential – strangely, Overman doesn’t explore its effects on women and gay men. But there’s an amusing subplot involving Kelly’s hair. (Quibble – could it really have grown back by the next episode?) Episode four is the mandatory Groundhog Day homage (even Xena had one). In it, disgraced runner Curtis tries to right a wrong by turning back time, only to find he’s made things worse and must rewind time over and over again, revealing in the process a surprisingly noble and generous nature.

Simon takes centre-stage in episode five, a rather creepy tale. Invisibility comes in handy if one has stalker tendencies, which Simon clearly does. It also brings Sally’s investigation into her boyfriend’s disappearance to an eventful climax – something you’d expect the writer to save for the final episode of the series. But episode six is different from the others. Switching the focus back to all five, it introduces several new elements, among them a cult leader who can turn even the scabrous misfits into goody-goodies wearing pastel cardigans, and ‘super-hoodie’, a mysterious boy on a bike who saves Nathan in his hour of need. It also (at last!) reveals Nathan’s super-power, which isn’t at all what I had anticipated, and ends on a cliff-hanger. And so the stage is set for a second series, already commissioned by Channel Four.

The acting of the leads (mostly older than their characters) is uniformly good, helped by spot-on casting. These are meaty roles and they throw themselves wholeheartedly into them. Iwan Rheon, fresh from acclaimed west end musical Spring Awakening gives a pitch-perfect performance as the unsmiling Simon, even down to the manner in which his character washes windows and dances. Robert Sheehan (Red Riding, Cherrybomb) must have kissed the blarney stone, so convincing is he as the unsquashable, thoughtless, so-gobby-you-just-wish-he’d-shut up Nathan.

Lauren Socha (The Unloved) gives Kelly a large-eyed, comic seriousness, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. Stage actor Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is thoroughly convincing as ex-athlete Curtis, something of a departure after his role as a drag queen in Wig Out! And straight-out-of-drama-school Antonia Thomas has the toughest task – her character is the least developed and seems to exist in isolation, but even so she manages to give Alisha real warmth and life. And finally Alex Reid (The Descent 2, 100 Mornings) conveys both fragility and tough-minded obsession as the dogged Sally.

Misfits is well supplied with about 90 minutes of extras, and if that’s not enough you can go to the show’s website for more. There are ten behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crew, and four making-of features: Ice Storm, Finding The Misfits, Roof Stunt, and OAP Disco (for those who can bear to listen repeatedly to James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful). And finally, there are four scripted films that the geeky Simon supposedly shot using his mobile phone.