After the excursion to Las Vegas in the season 3 prequel and last week’s introduction of new character Rudy, Misfits is back in more familiar waters with a lovely character-driven story for episode 2.
Even better, this episode focuses on Curtis who remained largely in the background during series 2 and hasn’t been the focus of an episode since halfway through series 1. The reasons for keeping Curtis in the background are obvious – and they have nothing to do with the fact that he’s black. Rather the problem was that his original power of turning back time functioned as a big red reset button, to be used only very sparingly. However, Curtis got himself a new power this season, a power with a lot of narrative possibilities. So it’s nice to see them explored.
Warning: There will be spoilers below the cut!
I’ve said before that the superpowers in Misfits are closely linked to the personalities of their owners. And the changing powers also reflect how the characters have changed and grown over the past two seasons. I already called it last week that Curtis’ original power of turning back time represents his anger and regret at losing his sports career, while his new power of changing genders at will represents his desire to be someone else, and this episode pretty much confirms my theory.
Curtis, as we’ll remember from season 1, used to be the golden boy, an up and coming athlete and Olympic hope held up as a role model for all the troubled teens of Thamesmead. But then he was arrested for possession of cocaine, given an exceptionally harsh sentence (though I don’t understand the justification of the sentences in Misfits at all, since the crimes and misdeeds vary wildly in seriousness and we have kids doing community service for anything from drunk driving via petty theft to arson) for his failure as a role model and banned from athletics for two years – all for the possession of cocaine he never even got around to taking. In short, Curtis lost everything that ever meant something to him. As a result, he’s angry and deeply unhappy.
I’m not a sports person at all, so I viewed Curtis’ sports career as his best shot of getting out of Thamesmead and the underprivileged milieu he was born into. However, in this episode it turns out that the sport itself was enormously important to Curtis, because he only ever was truly happy when he was running. But now he’s banned from athletics, he has also been cut off from his main source of satisfaction.
However, Curtis’ new gender-bending power offers him a way out of this dilemma. Because while Curtis may be banned from athletics as a boy, he can still run as a girl. And it just happens that there is a girls’ athletics camp at the community centre. So Curtis’ female alter ego – now named Melissa – shows up at the athletics camp, outruns the competition and attracts the attention of both Max, the running coach, and fellow runner Emma.
But this is not the only attention Curtis’ other self attracts, because probation worker Shaun is immediately taken by “Melissa” and begins pursuing her, quite literally at one point when he attempts to chat up “Melissa” during a run while she is constantly outrunning him. Up to now I hadn’t thought that it was possible for the latest probation worker to get any sleazier, but this episode proves me wrong. Because Shaun certainly hits new depths of sleaziness in this one, though not quite the depths displayed by his two predecessors.
In spite of all the humor, Misfits is one of the bleakest shows out there, because it is set in a world where all adult authority figures – whether they are teachers, parents, coaches, police officers, social workers, etc… – are useless at best and utterly evil at worst. In Misfits, parents are cold and uncaring (unless they are Nathan and Marnie who come from just such a family background), teachers don’t help bullying victims, police officers never arrest actual criminals (and there are plenty in Thamesmead) but instead seem to pick up troubled teens at random, and no one, absolutely no one, will help you or even believe you, when you’re in trouble. It’s not a comfortable world to visit, particularly if you work with young people in any capacity.
However, no profession gets off worse than probation workers. Probation workers in Misfits are some of the worst people on the planet (and have a very limited life experience). The three we have seen so far were a murderous nutter (Tony), an evil manipulative bitch exploiting a vulnerable young man in her charge (Sally) and so lazy and incompetent that you wonder why they haven’t been fired already (Shaun).
Now my experiences with real life probation workers are very limited. I’ve only ever met one, the much older sister of a school friend, and she was very committed to her work and to her charges and pretty much the opposite of the incompetent, lazy or flat out evil probation workers in Misfits. But then, Misfits is not a documentary on juvenile delinquency and the probation workers are clearly caricatures of the sort of problematic people one occasionally encounters in the work place. I have certainly met my share of watered down Shauns and even a few pre-storm Tonys. No Sally so far, thank goodness.
Besides, Misfits is the rare case of a teen drama that completely focus on the teens, while most teen dramas pay way too much attention to parents, teachers and other adults. Just watch any US teen drama from Beverly Hills 90210 via Dawson’s Creek to The Vampire Diaries. There’s plenty of focus on the adult cast, which always annoyed the hell out of me when I still was the target demographic, because I didn’t care about the marital drama of Brenda and Brandon’s or Dawson’s parents. Misfits takes this to the extreme that there is no sympathetic adult figure in the entire show at all (with the possible exception of Ruth, the woman who seduces Nathan way back in season 1).
“Melissa” is certainly attracting a lot of attention, but Curtis gets some attention of his own, when Emma, the girl from the running camp, walks up to him in the bar where he works. It turns out that Emma used to be a major fan of Curtis. They hit it off, leave the bar together and the next morning Curtis shows up for community service with a very satisfied grin on his face, only to be immediately quizzed whether he got laid and who the girl in question is.
Emma, on the other hand, is not far from satisfied. Quite the contrary, she confesses to a horrified Melissa that sleeping with Curtis was the worst sex she ever had and that Curtis is completely clueless in bed and terribly whiny in general. We also get to see some flashbacks of fumbling sex which confirm Emma’s point of view.
Seven months ago, I wrote a post (that is one of the most perennially popular on this blog) complaining about the unappealing sex scenes that litter many HBO shows. Now Misfits is about as frank with regards to sexual content as any HBO show and the sex scenes aren’t necessarily any more appealing. Nonetheless, the sex scenes in Misfits have never really annoyed me like the ones in the HBO shows. Because while we strongly suspect that Alan Ball considers Jason Stackhouse’s sexual exploits with his girlfriend du jour (or the similarly unappealing sex scenes in Ball’s Six Feet Under for that matter) genuinely erotic, most of the sex in Misfits looks god-awful, because it is supposed to be god-awful. After all, the characters are very young and largely inexperienced, even those who like Nathan keep bragging about their experience. Hence we get a lot of fumbling and awkward sex in storerooms and cars and toilet stalls and the locker room at the community centre. Besides, not all sex in Misfits is awful. Some of it is surprisingly tender. In season 2, there is a lovely scene which juxtaposes a tender and very hot encounter between Alisha and future Simon (who knows just how to please her, because Alisha showed him) with a painfully fumbling attempt of Nathan to get into Kelly’s knickers. Good sex and bad sex, right in the same scene.
Having his sexual performance dissed by Emma, a dejected Curtis promptly seeks out the only person who could confirm that he is not in fact crap in bed, namely Alisha. Alisha tries to deflect the question with “Well, we never actually had sex, because we couldn’t touch each other”, but when Curtis keeps on pushing, she gives him the truth. Yes, he was crap in bed, because he was more interested in his own dick than in Alisha (as demonstrated by Alisha in a hilarious pantomime of Curtis having sex) and anyway, Simon is much better, because he actually cares about the satisfaction of his partner, and besides, Curtis’ constant whining how he shouldn’t even be there is annoying as hell.
I had never actually pegged Curtis for being quite so clueless in sexual matters, because he always seemed the most confident of the male characters. Though considering that the competition are Nathan, Simon and Rudy, that’s not saying much. Besides, the sex scenes between Curtis and Nicki in season 2 were always among the better ones in the show. But then, Nicki had a heart condition for most of her life and therefore probably not a whole lot of chances to gain experience. And even Nicki tells off Curtis at one point for being way too self-centered.
As for the whinyness, both Emma and Alisha have got that one right, because Curtis really is whiny. Of the various crimes which landed the kids in community service, I always found Curtis’ story the least relatable along with Alisha’s. Both Simon and Kelly ended up in community service, because they finally decided to strike back against years of vicious bullying. Even if what they did was wrong, one can easily understand their reasons. Nathan’s story of getting arrested for petty theft (eating pick ‘n mix candy without paying) and vandalizing a bowling alley is not all that relatable at first glance, but when we finally get to see what happened in a flashback, it’s almost impossible not to cringe at and feel sorry for what is obviously a desperate attempt of Nathan’s to get the attention of his uncaring parents. And indeed, Nathan chooses to be arrested, because he refuses to be bailed out by the father who was never there for him. Indeed, Nathan, Kelly and Simon would never have had to end up in the criminal justice system at all, if someone had intervened earlier and supported Simon against the bully who made his life hell, told Kelly that beating up people isn’t the ideal solution to any problem and if Nathan’s parents had actually paid attention to their troubled son. Alisha, on the other hand, ends up doing community service because she cannot grasp the idea that drinking and driving doesn’t mix. It’s very difficult to have sympathy with her, but then season 1 Alisha is not a very likable character. And Curtis… Curtis got himself and his then girlfriend arrested, because he wanted to try cocaine. Of course, his sentence was overly harsh, but nonetheless I can’t really feel sorry for him, though that may be coloured by the fact that there have been way too many real life cases of athletes who swore that they didn’t take the drugs even as the second and third tests came in positive. One guy, a marathon runner, even went as far as to claim that someone had spiked his toothpaste (!) with drugs. So Curtis’ story pretty much matches any stereotype I ever had about athletes taking drugs. Which was probably the intention, because Misfits offers up a lot of stereotypes and then turns them into human beings. Nonetheless, Curtis is the one who frequently whines how everything was a mistake and how he shouldn’t really be there to the point that you sometimes wanted to shout at the screen, “Oh for fuck’s sake, the drugs weren’t planted on you, you bought them, so shut up.”
Having Alisha confirm Emma’s judgment of his qualities as a lover, an even more dejected Curtis decides to do some anatomical explorations of the female body. And luckily he has just the ideal test subject, his female alter ego Melissa. Hence, we see “Melissa” touching herself, finding out that breasts hurt, when squeezed, and locating the clitoris after a bit of searching. It’s a hilarious moment, though I wonder why Curtis didn’t try that sooner. If I had his power, that would probably be one of the first things I would do. Though Curtis is not very comfortable with his other female self yet – for example, there is a funny scene later on where “Melissa” fails to pee into a test tube for a drugs test (I certainly sympathize, since I can never hit those little tubes either). Also kudos to Kehinde Fadipe, the actress who plays Curtis’ female alter ago, and manages to play the part so convincingly that you forget that there are two actors playing Curtis in this episode.
Things heat up considerably when Emma invites “Melissa” for a girls’ night out and even lends her a dress, since Melissa insists that she has nothing to wear. Emma and Melissa thoroughly enjoy themselves and end up in Emma’s room, where Emma asks Melissa point blank if she’s a lesbian, because she has noticed the way Melissa looks at her, like a bloke who is trying to get into her knickers. Though in Curtis’ defense, he does his best not to look, when surrounded by girls undressing in the changing room. Curtis or rather Melissa says nothing, after all the last encounter did not go well at all. However, it turns out that Emma is bisexual and quite willing to show Melissa what to do. And so Curtis’ education in female anatomy continues as he experiences his first orgasm as a woman.
The next day, Curtis just has to share his experience with Simon, who happens to be the only person who knows that Curtis is Melissa, since he stumbled upon Melissa going through Curtis’ things and confronted her about it. Curtis goes on about how much better female orgasms are. And best of all, they get to have more than one, which is really unfair towards guys in his opinion. “So are you a lesbian now?”, Simon asks. “I don’t think there’s a name for this shit”, a very confused Curtis replies.
It’s nice to see Curtis and Simon hanging out and talking about girls because up to now we haven’t seen that much indication that those two are friends. In seasons 1 and 2, Simon mostly interacted and eventually bonded with Nathan, while Curtis remained more to himself. Talking of friendships, we also get a lovely bonding scene between Kelly and Alisha which begins with the two girls eating ice cream, when Kelly spots Seth, the power broker, entering a cemetery with a bouquet of flowers in his hand and insists on following him. And of course, Alisha immediately grasps what’s going on. “You’re fancying him”, she tells Kelly who doesn’t deny it either.
Talking of Kelly and Seth, I’m really enjoying the sparks that are flying between those two, though it seems that Seth is still grieving for a young woman who died at age 23 and who is buried in the grave he visits. In addition to the cemetery scene, there’s also an earlier meeting between the two of them, where Kelly uses her rocket scientist powers (which are turning out more useful than they originally seemed) to fix Seth’s car and he gives her a lift (all of 100 meters round the corner) in return. Seth’s power dealing business can’t be that successful, though, since his BMW is at least ten years old. On the other hand, the only new cars you ever see in British TV dramas are the ubiquitous black Land Rovers. Everything else is inevitably ancient, which is particularly notable when supposedly wealthy and successful characters drive Mercedes and BMW models that have been discontinued for years.
Now that Curtis has had sex with Emma in both his personas, things get messy very quickly. Emma and “Melissa” attend a party at the community centre together, where Melissa accepts a drink from Max, the running coach. A drink which Max, as we’d seen earlier, has spiked with a pill. What is more, Max also tells Melissa that he needs to talk to her alone about getting her some one on one training. And even earlier, Max had attempted to slip his hand under Melissa’s short under the pretense of massaging her sore thigh. In short, Max is a majorly creepy guy who sexually harasses the girls he is training and also attempts to drug and rape them.
There is a nice illustration of the effects of male privilege here, because Curtis/Melissa has absolutely no awareness of the potential dangers of situations which would have raised every red flag in a woman. Not only has Curtis obviously never gotten the “Don’t ever accept drinks from strangers or leave your own drink unattended, because you never know what they put in there” lecture from his mother, he also isn’t aware of sexual harassment and therefore unable to deal with Max (and earlier Shaun) groping him. And even after he has been spiked and is beginning to feel woozy, Curtis still has no idea what is going on.
Emma does realize that something is wrong with “Melissa”, though she never suspects drugs either. Instead, she drags Melissa out of the party and deposits her in the locker room, while she calls a taxi. While Emma is outside, Rudy – who had invited himself to the party and got so drunk he had to throw up – comes upon the unconscious Melissa. He checks on her, when Melissa suddenly grabs and kisses him. She also wants more and Rudy is only too happy to oblige, though he does wonder why Melissa keeps calling him Emma. Still never look a gift horse in the mouth. So we soon have Rudy performing oral sex on a zoned out Melissa who wakes up and pushes him away, just as Emma comes back.
So after two seasons (well, there is the magical tattoo induced attempt of Nathan to seduce Simon in season 2), we have finally had lesbian and gay sex (well, sort of, since Curtis was in a female body at the time) in the same episode. I was actually surprised how little Curtis was freaked out by the fact that he almost had sex with Rudy of all people (sorry, but I’m still not sold on Rudy), since I had always figured Curtis as a more conservative and religious person. Besides, he is very clearly interested exclusively in women, whether as Curtis or Melissa (which is a nice touch BTW, since gender identity and sexual orientation are independent of each other). Rudy, on the other hand, is quite freaked out when he finds out. Rudy strikes me as a lot less secure in his sexual orientation than any of the other characters anyway. Oh, of course he keeps proclaiming that he is as straight as can be, but I strongly suspect that he does protest too much.
Emma doesn’t buy the “But I thought it was you” excuse and storms off. Curtis or rather Melissa tries to go after her, but doesn’t get far due to the drugs. Even worse, she runs straight into Max who offers to take her home. Considering that Max had drugged Melissa in the first place, we all know where that is going. And indeed, Max drives the unconscious Melissa to a secluded spot (there are many of those in Thamesmead), unbuckles his belt and begins to take her clothes off. Luckily, Melissa wakes up just in time to realize what is happening, transforms back into Curtis and knock out Max. There is a continuity mistake in that scene, by the way, because we see Max taking off Melissa’s knickers, but when Melissa transforms back into Curtis, a shocked Max sees the bulk in his knickers (which he had already taken off earlier) just before he is knocked out. But then, they could have hardly shown an underpantsless Curtis. Misfits may be very open about sexual content, but it’s not that open. Besides, continuity errors are nothing new to Misfits, since a lot of the overall plot hinges on a massive continuity error in episode 6 of season 2, where Simon finally finds out the truth about the identity of the guy in the mask, only that Curtis rewinds time to before that point. Yet Simon still knows the truth in subsequent episodes.
Now I really dislike drink spiking and drug rape plots. They have the tendency to become painfully moralizing, such as this wonderful example of German filmmaking. The trailers alone are so god-awful, that watching the whole TV movie is probably as pleasurable as having your teeth pulled out. Never mind that the actors in their mid to late thirties, who play the perpetrators and victims, are not exactly representative of the demographic where drink spiking is an issue. Still, expect this turkey to be up for a Grimme award next year, since it’s exactly what the judges like, deadly earnest and dull as dishwater.
Besides, while drink spiking and drug rape are both very real dangers, they are hardly new (I got the “Never leave your drink unattended” lecture from my Mom more than twenty years ago). Besides, a sort of moral panic seems to have developed around drink spiking in the UK, while the actual number of cases is not all that high, as these two articles claim. Finally, the increased awareness of drink spiking has suddenly turned anything from Axe commercials to old fashioned love potions stories into alleged rape culture propaganda. Just take the uproar around the sex spray scene in the first episode of Torchwood (which happened to coincide with the height of the moral panic), a scene which was a) highly ambiguous (since we never learn whether Owen went home with the couple or not) b) played for laughs, c) did not involve any spiking of anything and d) was pretty obviously a take on the old “love potion with unintended side effects” trope. The song Love Potion No. 9 has basically the same plot. Yet the uproar at the time was unbelievable and very likely contributed to Owen Harper (who was my favourite character and played by the undeniably best actor) being killed off in season 2 (and having to suffer plenty of indignities earlier), when Russell T. Davies and friends caved in to fan pressure (yes, I’m still pissed about that four years later). Coincidentally, an episode of Demons features a much more problematic scene (our hero spikes the drink of his new paramour with a substance that will make her reveal her true monstrous form) which apparently went completely unremarked, even though Demons was explicitly aimed at young audiences, while Torchwood was not.
So in short, I really don’t like drink spiking plots, because they tend to ruin whatever they appear in. Luckily, this episode of Misfits is the exception to the rule, because it is actually good. The drink spiking and attempted drug rape play an important role, but they do not overwhelm the plot and turn it into a moralizing after-school special. Instead, the drink spiking is used as yet another example for the many things that Curtis does not know about being a woman. This is not a warning of drink spiking, it is a story about male privilege. And freedom from the fear of rape and the resulting vigilance is certainly a big part of that privilege.
Later that night, a distraught Emma shows up on the doorstep of Curtis who has recovered remarkably quickly from the effects of the drug (probably because Curtis is heavier and more muscular than his female counterpart and therefore absorbs the drugs quicker). Emma throws herself at Curtis, who tells her that he doesn’t want to be a “revenge fuck”. This regains Curtis some respect in Emma’s eyes – until she sees Melissa’s dress lying on the floor of Curtis’ room (Does this mean that he has his own flat now? Since he mentioned living with his mother in season 1). Emma jumps to conclusions and storms off once again.
The next morning, Curtis unburdens himself to a very confused Simon, who doesn’t quite get who is sleeping with whom now. “She thinks I’m fucking myself”, Curtis laments. Unfortunately, Curtis decides to have his little heart to heart with Simon while in the form of Melissa, completely unaware that what is completely innocent between two guys – such as adjusting your clothes or asking your buddy to zip you up – suddenly looks a lot less innocent when one of the two is a girl. Hence, Melissa finds herself confronted by Kelly who tells her in her own inimitable way (which involved shoving Melissa against the lockers) to keep her hands off Simon. Curtis has no idea what Kelly’s problem is – Simon is a friend and Curtis only interested in women, both as Curtis and Melissa. The situation heats up even further, when the rest of the gang shows up as well as the probation worker, who is obviously enjoying the show. Simon assures everybody that his relationship with “Melissa” is not what it looks like, a furious Alisha calls Melissa a slut and to top it all off, Emma shows up to slap Melissa for supposedly sleeping with Curtis. “Wait a minute, she’s shagging Curtis, too”, Kelly exclaims.
You would things that the situation couldn’t possibly get worse, but it does, because everybody is suddenly staring at Melissa’s crotch or rather at the dark red spot that is rapidly forming between her legs on her white running shorts. Yes on top of all that, she got her period, too (which begets the question: If Curtis can get his period while in female form, can he get pregnant, too?). A distraught Melissa runs off and locks herself in a toilet stall, while Simon finally clears up the situation, much to the relief of Kelly and Alisha and the shock of Rudy, who realizes just whose pubic hair is still stuck between his teeth and almost chokes. Kelly goes after Melissa to offer her a spare tampon and some tips on getting the blood out of her shorts, but Curtis decides that he does not want to live this particular part of the female experience and transforms back. More importantly, he decided to tell Emma the truth.
But when Curtis shows up at the residence hall where Emma is staying, one of the other runners tells him that Emma isn’t in, because she went for a drink with her coach. Fearing the worst, Curtis dashes off and arrives just in time to save the already drugged Emma from creepy rapist Max. He beats up Max and locks him in the boot of his car.
When Emma comes to again, Curtis tells her what happened and also transforms into Melissa in front of her eyes. Emma takes the fact that Curtis can switch genders with remarkable calmness. It’s quite interesting that very few people in Misfits freak out when confronted with superpowers. Charlie, Rudy’s doomed girlfriend from last week, also remained surprisingly calm when Rudy split in two in front of her eyes. Of course, the inhabitants of Thamesmead are probably used to the existence of superpowers by now – Seth’s power trading business couldn’t work otherwise. But Emma is not from Thamesmead.
Talking of powers, Max was the first non-superpowered villain we have seen in a long time – since Sally, the probation worker, back in season 1 in fact. Though I quite like the fact that we get a non-superpowered villain once in a while, since it is very possible to be evil without superpowers. And both Sally and Max were certainly among the viler villains in the show. Talking of Max, I quite like what Curtis and Emma do to him, namely tie him up naked in the stadium and write “I drug and rape girls” on his chest. Methinks someone has been reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
All in all this was a very good episode that finally brought a much neglected character into the spotlight. Quite a step up from last week’s season premiere. Though I’m still not sold on Rudy yet.