Friday, March 25, 2011

The British e4 show Misfits is the first show I’ve experienced as animated gif before ever viewing a single episode. I internet stumbled across this looping image of the character of Nathan Young, portrayed by the Irish actor Robert Sheehan, impaled on an exposed pipe and making the gesture that, in gif form, could be understood to signify popular internet-speak phrasings like “U Mad?” or “haters gonna hate.”

This “whatever, guys” attitude so pervasively affected in anonymous blogging makes a show like Misfits a natural subject for a contemporary obsessive fandom that finds its home on the internet. The character of Nathan speaks almost exclusively in the key of sarcasm, he is derisive of everyone around him, never second guesses the first thoughts that occur to him, is endlessly sure of himself and fiercely unapologetic about his bald crassness.  He is also transfixing, full of wit, and with Sheehan’s charismatic and nuanced portrayal, and his easily contorting, expressive face in a constant state of emoting, at once supremely gif-friendly and much more than these zippy, contained (and satisfying in their own way) moments. In the gif above the joke is that he’s making the “whatever, man” gesture while grotesquely, morbidly pierced through. His superpower of immortality is treated as mundane, a very old, traditional joke structure with uniquely modern variation. If Nathan in some respects stands-in for the perceived lack of self-consciousness that attends today’s social actors and our modes of communicating, he then proceeds to teach us how to tweak this way of being for better and worse. His sarcasm is occasionally set aside for authentic sincerity, it is also hardly ever truly mean. His gumption is almost winning, but when he teeters on nihilism, he doesn’t only irritate, he’s downright dangerous.

Misfits has mostly been compared to Skins and Heroes, or thought of as a combination of the two, and if you sum up what the premise is that appears true.  It also sounds ridiculous and awful. A band of young, amoralistic offenders sentenced to community service are caught in a lightning storm and left with superpowers.  The way it unfolds, however, it ends up having a closer analogue in something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another show with a terrible sounding conceit that was actually brilliant, where the supernatural elements were used as devices to illustrate something true about human characters, and the way it pans out is far less clich├ęd than that makes it sound. Reality co-existed with the science fiction fantasy, neither overrode the other. The structure of Misfits is also in the vein of Buffy’s monster-of-the-week stories feeding a well-plotted longer story arc. The changes the characters go through feel earned (their lack of growth or self-knowledge, likewise, is pretty believable).  Yet Misfits goes to cruder, darker places then Buffy did, and it has no admirable hero to really root for in the same way. If we’re to do the “It’s blank reference meets blank reference” summary, maybe it could be more accurately located as Buffy meets Deadwood. Its protagonists aren’t just flawed, they are often really questionable in their decisions and more often than not unsentimental in their relationship to the idea of death.  Death abounds, bodies pile up. Whenever a serious moment gets the characters close to regret about something like, for instance, killing their probation worker, Nathan is there to make some clever, Irish-brogue inflected dick joke and provide levity, and the interaction there registers that there’s something  useful, charming and really unsettling about this fuck-it attitude. You could both legitimately and kind of appallingly want to be like Nathan, which reminds me of how I felt about Swearengin. A lot of us sort of are like Nathan, or secretly want to be, or we have instincts that are actively acted upon by him and maybe that’s part of the thrill of him- that he always gets away with his id-fueled behavior.  

Everything about the show is gray. The filters on the cameras render everyone pallid. The skies are always smoky and cloudy and ominous. They live up to all my naive Dickensian fantasies. Everyone but Nathan is harangued and troubled by their desires, the girls and boys alike alternate between experiencing the pleasure of satisfying impulses, and feeling cursed by their mere existence. Arrested development, money troubles, difficulty with self-expression and the fall out of frustration that attends that- it seems apt for today that the characters are in their twenties rather than teenagers, and living out a very deranged “Breakfast Club,” scenario. These are superheroes in a prolonged recession, struggling with the inescapable knowledge of what a comforting lie John Hughes gave us about different identities communing.

The really great thing about Misfits is that in all its unabashed offensiveness (nowhere else will you hear so many euphemisms for genitalia tossed off so casually), its mixed messages about what constitutes good behavior, is that its violence and grotesquery and sheer absurdity is consistently betrayed by some core sweetness, and it doesn’t have to labor to point out its shifts to a viewer, or strike one as a wild mood swing of tone. When erratic, inappropriate, endlessly blathering Nathan sings a soft lullaby to a baby, it doesn’t come across as sudden pandering, or strange reformation. We not only want to believe he means it, we do.

There is this slippage occuring in how access to narrative works. The moving gif isn't far away from what Edweard Muybridge's photo motion studies were doing, or fragments of modernist poems that signified the new fragmentary ways of relating to information emerging as societal relationships shifted in the early twentieth century. I wonder sometimes if the popularity of the GIF is born out of this need to slow down and break down all of the complicated signs that make up how something like a television show works and give viewer/readers one small piece of information to analyze and read what it denotes and dispatches with the particular emotion it houses. Misfits works so well, is popular in this moment because, it is both so good at giving us these moments and also at allowing its audience to partipate in the narrative construction, co-opt it as their own, and take in all of the vast tonal shifts in a way that is immanently relatable, and reducible down to things understood.