Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Misfits: I Don’t Think We’re in Smallville Anymore

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 23, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Two weeks ago, Misfits began its much anticipated second season. When the show premiered last fall in the UK on Channel 4, it was nothing short of a phenomenon. This past June Misfits surprised everyone, including the show’s young stars, when it won the BAFTA for Best Drama, beating out BBC favourites Spooks (aka MI-5 in North America), Being Human, and Jimmy McGovern’s exquisitely powerful The Street. Part teen drama, part science fiction, part inner-city portrait, the premise of the show is deceptively familiar: five young delinquents suddenly find themselves with superpowers. We’ve all seen comparable stories before, be it on Smallville, Heroes, The X-Men, or more recently, this season’s No Ordinary Family on ABC. And while on paper Misfits might bear a passing resemblance to these more conventional offerings it has very little in common with any of them. The series is intelligent, darkly comic, intensely suspenseful, and always extraordinarily fun. Think of it as Heroes meets The Breakfast Club, with a large dash of Trainspotting.

Set against a grey, urban landscape peppered with alienated youth, decaying infrastructure, and economic despair, Misfits is, ironically, more grounded in reality than many other less fantastical shows. The show’s writing is sharp and hilarious, invariably profane, and refreshingly unadorned. (Series creator Howard Overman is credited with penning every one of the first season’s 6 episodes and it looks as if the same will be true for the current season.) The five young actors—largely unknown before they were cast in the show—don’t have the cheek-bones, jarring athletic builds, and model good looks that populate what passes for teen dramas on American television, but they are consistently superb in their roles. The charisma of Robert Sheehan, the young Irish actor who plays Nathan on the series, could carry the show on its own, but each of our ‘heroes’ is a well-drawn and profoundly human character.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Walking Dead: Zombies Matter Here

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 9, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Vampires might get all the good press, but the fact is that zombies have also been enjoying a renaissance of late. There have never been so many quality zombie films: beginning with the phenomenal success of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2003, Edgar Wright’s riotous Shaun of the Dead in 2004, the triumphant return of zombie-auteur George Romero with Land of the Dead in 2005, and Andrew Currie’s biting satire Fido in 2006. In the book stores, we’ve got Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and World War Z (2006). (The film adaptation of the latter is now in pre-production, with Brad Pitt in the lead role.) But there has always been one realm the zombies have failed to successfully (de)populate: the small screen. With the Halloween premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the zombies have finally come to our living rooms.

Last year, AMC retired its original motto “TV for Movie People” and introduced its current slogan, “Story Matters Here.” In the 90-minute pilot of The Walking Dead, both principles are in full effect. Developed for television by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), and adapted from Robert Kirkman’s long-running black-and-white comic series of the same name, The Walking Dead is set in the weeks after a zombie apocalypse decimates the human population. While it is unclear how much the show will be following the plot of the comic series (now in its seventh year), its writer Robert Kirkland is on-board as a writer for this first season. Darabont himself wrote and directed the first episode, and it is a masterpiece of restrained storytelling. True to the comic book source material, Darabont lets the visuals tell the story. The early scenes are given hardly any incidental music, and long stretches of the first episode pass without a word of dialogue. This slow, cinematic build-up—as eerie as it is suspenseful—lets the landscape reveal itself, both to the viewer and to our lead character, on its own terms. Check your zombie expectations at the door: there are no cheap scares, no cartoonish violence, and no pounding music. The Walking Dead is a show about character and story: this is a story about the living, not the dead.