Misfits

New episodes Mondays on Hulu (airs on E4 in the UK). Three episodes into the third season.

The whole “this British TV show could never air in the United States” thing is often kind of overblown, but in the case of Misfits, imported here by Hulu, that’s probably a fair assessment. The show’s nonchalant treatment of its characters’ sex lives is its most obviously un-American trait, but the foreignness goes deeper than that. American TV almost invariably celebrates characters who are wealthy or ambitious or somehow outstanding, the best at whatever they do, and Misfits features characters who, even after they acquire supernatural powers, are doggedly ordinary—underemployed, living in council housing (or a complex so grim and run-down it might as well be), in and out of trouble with the law not because they’re outright criminals but because they’re aimless and rash and unlucky. And yet the show is as nonchalant about their hapless, mundane existence as it is about the obvious fact that people are sexual creatures.

That breezy freshness spills over into every aspect of the show: the charmingly flippant approach to its supernatural elements, the peculiar plots twists, the engagingly laid-back acting. It’s a quirky show that doesn’t make a show of its quirkiness. Sometimes the quirks skew wrong (a few plot lines in the first season left a bad taste in my mouth), but they’re always compelling: entertaining first and then, once you’re finished laughing—whether with humor or in disbelief—oddly thought-provoking. Introducing this brazen oddity to the American audiences is one of the best things Hulu has ever done.

The premise of Misfits is familiar to the point of being trite: Five near strangers stuck serving community service together get caught in a freak lightning storm that leaves them with supernatural powers. Belligerent but deeply insecure Kelly (Lauren Socha) begins hearing other people’s thoughts. Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), tormented by a particularly life-altering mistake, now effectively relives—and can rewrite—a span of time whenever he experiences deep regret. Lonely, awkward Simon (Iwan Rheon) develops the power of invisibility. Alisha (Antonia Thomas), a beautiful girl with latent fears about whether any of her conquests actually care about her, gains the terrible “gift” of sending men into a violent sexual frenzy with any skin-to-skin contact. And rude, crass Nathan (Robert Sheehan) … well, Nathan doesn’t know what his power is for quite some time, but he’s part of the community service gang, so he’s always along for the adventures.

Of course, those “adventures” tend to be dangers the misfits stumble into, not challenges they go looking for. With the exception of Simon—arguably the most intelligent, sensitive member of the gang, and certainly the one most steeped in comic book mythology—none of them are interested in being heroes, just in getting through their community service and blundering on with their lives. Their powers, which they have difficulty controlling, are dark manifestations of their own neuroses, not true blessings. And besides, they soon learn they’re not the only ones affected by the storm. Over the course of the show, they meet people with classic powers such as teleportation and forcible hypnosis and more esoteric abilities like involuntary shape-shifting into dog form and telekinesis of dairy products.

Dairy boy actually manages to become a surprisingly scary supervillain in a darkly portentous episode, which says something about the tone of Misfits. The show manages to be silly and crude, inventive and unpredictable, hilarious and unnerving, suspenseful and poignant, cynical and romantic, sometimes all (or almost all) at the same time—and it does all of that without taking itself too seriously. A typically postmodern show, it tends to circle back on the implications of some of its more troublesome turns, cheerfully acknowledging a tired cliché or bluntly questioning whether a paradox-ridden time-travel plotline makes any sense at all.

Despite the sci-fi material, Misfits rarely feels particularly science fictional: the powers are never the point, just the jumping-off spot. True, the show’s UK budget (small by American standards) probably wouldn’t allow for any flashy special effects anyway, but Misfits manages to get around that with some ingenuity and style. In one aesthetically striking event, several characters spend an inordinate amount of time wearing music-blasting earbuds to protect themselves from the brainwashing voice of an adversary, and the show uses the contrasting soundtracks to great effect, clarifying perspective and creating funny incongruities.

It’s a smart show underneath its coarse, black-humored, irreverent provocations, capable of pulling off a sharp-edged satire of the individual-against-the-pod-people chestnut or a bracingly queer exploration of gender and rape culture. (Not quite so likely to impress pop-culture-minded feminists was the treatment of Alisha’s initial sexually charged power, which was so disturbing, with its creepy slut-shaming undertones, that even with the best intentions it tended to result in deeply problematic plot lines. I wasn’t sorry to see a deus ex machina arrive to sweep that element away.)

The show’s writers don’t neglect the characters amid all the shenanigans either, giving the actors people to play, not pawns. Rheon reveals remarkable subtlety in a de facto double role in second season, and Sheehan never loses sight of the humanity in his perverse clown of a character, even as he demonstrates riotously anarchic comedic talent. Playing Alisha, Thomas has had to tackle some heavy material, and she has acquitted it beautifully, giving her a character a tenacious strength and making sense of a romance so unlikely it made me laugh out loud when first introduced but now stands as a lovely depiction of how falling in love can mean seeing through to potential even the object of that love can’t see.

And that, in the end, is why Misfits works even when it doesn’t: It loves its characters—loves them in all their foolishness and weakness and shortsightedness, loves them even as it laughs both at and with them, loves them as they grow up (and regress) in fits and starts. Misfits is funny and sharp and thrilling, but most of all, it has heart—an all too rare thing in a TV show on either side of the Atlantic.