Misfits: Dystopia in Broken Britain
by Chelsea Daggett
The British youth drama Misfits features the broken skyline of London’s south side as more than a set piece. The repetitious images of dirty concrete high-rise flats against a dark gray English sky become a character in their own right. These images set the stage for a dystopic Britain, in which every person’s insecurities manifest as superpowers. Unlike most superhero media, Misfits rejects an unproblematic image of the hero. In Broken Britain, the main characters, juvenile delinquents who represent the moral panic surrounding youth, are the only ones who seem to understand the dire consequences of superpowers gone awry. Yet even they cannot seem to harness their energies for good. Misfits offers a vision of “Broken” Britain in line with the moral panic stirred by Prime Minister David Cameron and the press. In this vision of Britain, London and its youth exemplify the crime, violence, and moral disarray of the entire country. Misfits’ dystopic landscapes and dark themes create irony and self-reflexivity in order to comment on the exaggerated prominence of “Broken” Britain themes in everyday life.
Misfits is a distinctly postmodern show and its major narrative techniques, irony and self-reflexivity, hinge on the dystopic quality of its London setting. This dystopic picture aligns with Fredric Jameson’s description of the postmodern space. Jameson updates Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime defined as awe and terror in the face of your own eventual mortality. These feelings appeared most often in nature and Burke’s quintessential example is the feeling of standing on the edge of a cliff. Jameson translates this term to the space of the city which reflects the dystopic quality of Mistfits’ cityscape. Jameson asks “how urban squalor can be a delight to the eyes… how an unparalleled quantum leap in the alienation of daily life in the city can now be experienced in the form of a strange new hallucinatory exhilaration” (Jameson, 76). Misfits embodies this image in its presentation of the city and the superpowers of the show’s characters. Each episode ends with the group of delinquents perched on the roof of their local community center surveying the dirty water of the canal and the high rises above them. Each of their superpowers derives from an amplified insecurity of the character. For example, the boy that is bullied and ignored becomes invisible. In the show, the fear of the city instilled by the storm amplifies every scenario into a misunderstood act of delinquency.
Misfits reinforces the image of the city as a site of squalor and awe in several other stylistic choices. The opening sequence features a rock song that compares the city to heaven while also asking “the price is what?” This juxtaposition of idealistic and unstable imagery coincides with the visual style of the opening sequence. The opening establishes both the city images and dreary color palette of Misfits’ aesthetic. The images are animated representations of city buildings with rats and cats running through alleys filled with trash and overlaid with a gritty grey texture. The show itself recreates these same dull colors using a constantly dark London sky and monotone camera filters. The sense of doom this aesthetic creates lies at the heart of the show’s image of Britain as a dystopic “broken” landscape.
Mistfits undermines assumptions about heroism to examine the proposition that juvenile defenders are the core of Broken Britain. Current societal tensions about Britain’s moral deficit revolve around the role of youth. Policy makers have focused on “the need for named and overt inclusion of children and young people within plans for building local community and citizenship, precisely because of how often they are excluded … or more negatively, perceived as a threat” (Evans, 168). The youth in Misfits inhabit the role of threat and hero simultaneously. They prevent crimes perpetrated by individuals with powers, sometimes accidentally and sometimes purposefully. Their constant refrain is, “it’s always the storm,” to indicate the common origin of all social problems. At the same time, they all serve community service for a variety of crimes as minor as stealing some mixed candy from a dispenser or as major as selling drugs. Usually, the characters had good intentions when making these mistakes. For instance, Curtis, who was caught selling drugs, took the blame so his girlfriend would be free. He sacrificed an Olympic athletic career by making this decision. The dual identity of youth as hero and delinquent suggests the complexity of dystopic morality; the city is both a space of revelry and dismay.
The final episode of the show comments reflexively on the role of the media in the Broken Britain phenomenon. In this episode, the traditional bad-youths-turned-to-heroes dynamic of the show is reversed. Youth with good intentions disguise themselves as delinquents to impose order on society. However, the project fails when the good youth become delinquents. The episode shows this turn-around through two montages of newspaper clippings; the first includes headlines like “streets unsafe” and the second includes headlines like “crime no more” and “guardian angels.” However, these declarations of safety stand in contrast to a sequence in which one of the crime fighters murders a citizen for littering. In Broken Britain, even heroes resist the easy moral definitions that media ascribe to them.
Misfits uses irony and media reflexivity to reflect the moral panic of the Broken Britain rhetoric. In a dystopic London, the youth delinquents play unlikely heroes but even heroes make questionable choices. Betraying superhero conventions and highlighting the role of the city aesthetically allows Misfits to call the easy moral judgments of Broken Britain into question. Like Jameson’s concept of the postmodern sublime, Misfits’ London can be at once a dangerous and supernatural space.