‘Extraordinary’ Review: The Power of Powerlessness
On paper, the new British series “Extraordinary” sounds like a barbed response to the superhero glut in our popular culture. Its heroine, Jen (Máiréad Tyers), is defined by her lack of super: In a world where nearly everyone gains an unusual power when they turn 18, she’s still waiting for hers at 25.
But satire is not the only or even the primary objective of “Extraordinary,” which happens to come from inside the superhero-industrial complex — its eight episodes premiere on Wednesday on Hulu, Marvel’s corporate sibling. It has a lot of fun playing with the conventions of that currently dominant genre, but it is equally representative of some other favorite modes of the Walt Disney Company: the sentimental buddy comedy and the inspirational triumph-of-the-underdog tale.
There are many ways that blend could go wrong, but the show’s various strains are combined in a charming and consistently amusing fashion by its creator and writer, Emma Moran, a young Northern Irish comedian with a short résumé; “Extraordinary” appears to be her first credit beyond “additional material.” It helps that Moran’s comic sensibility is dirty-mouthed and dirty-minded in a completely disarming, sometimes painfully funny way.
Jen lives with her best friend, Carrie (Sofia Oxenham), and Carrie’s underachieving boyfriend, Kash (Bilal Hasna), in a grimy London neighborhood whose streetscape is an analogue for the trio’s stagnant, scraping-by lives. She is minimally employed selling party equipment; badly treated by a handsome hookup (Ned Porteous) who literally flies away after sex; and resentfully jealous of her stepsister (Safia Oakley-Green), their mother’s pet, who gains a power like clockwork on her 18th birthday. (The jovial dreadnought of a mother is played by Siobhán McSweeney, famous as Sister Michael in “Derry Girls.”)
Despite her powerlessness and the general unhappiness of her situation, Jen is not an easy character to sympathize with. As the title implies, she’s extra: whiny, narcissistic, impetuous, heedless of others’ feelings. The plot follows Jen’s efforts to unlock her unknown power, but the show’s arc is toward curing her of the selfishness that endangers her friendship with the preternaturally kind Carrie and her budding relationship with a mysterious shape-shifter (played with great charm by Luke Rollason).
And that motif fits cozily with the obvious theme of the power the outsider, the oddball and the stray possess if they only realize it’s there. In the show’s world, celebrating your superpower makes you part of the conformist crowd; Jen’s desperate attempts to raise money for sessions at a “clinic” for people who haven’t manifested their powers suggest the expensive allure of cosmetic surgery.
All of this affirmation could get icky, and there are moments when “Extraordinary” slides toward bland sitcom business-as-usual. But Moran is nearly always inventive enough to keep you engaged in her low-fi ode to getting by.
Her depiction of a casually superpowered world — a state of affairs that has existed for about a decade — is the show’s comic armature and a deft bit of sleight of hand. The way people wield their abilities provides continual amusement, and occasional pathos, while not really being what the show is about.
No one seems to put much thought into the possibilities their powers offer; those powers are most often exploited for immediate and minor financial gain. Being able to fly means being able to hire yourself out as a one-person taxi. The less exciting powers are often comic in their own right, such as one character’s ability to produce 3-D copies, laboriously and indelicately, from his own body.
Moran saddles her central characters with powers that amplify, in sweet and sad ways, the normal dilemmas of their young lives. The feckless Kash uses his ability to rewind short segments of time to dodge responsibilities and postpone a reckoning in his relationship.
Carrie, a timorous soul who has always existed in Jen’s shadow, finds an expressive outlet in her ability to channel the dead, which a lip-syncing Oxenham does to great comic effect, summoning an indignant Hitler to lift Jen’s spirits or silkenly flirting with herself as the libidinous Charles II. It is also a way for her to demonstrate her good nature — when Jen is especially defeated, Carrie provides beyond-the-grave heart-to-hearts. (There are times when it seems an even better, more complex series could have been centered on Carrie.)
Beyond the meta-cultural games, though, the show coasts along on the power of Moran’s comic imagination and on her ability to bring the jokes, whether verbal, visual or conceptual. One of her best and raunchiest inventions is Gordon (Eros Vlahos), a Napoleon Dynamite look-alike whose power is the ability to give anyone who touches him an orgasm. It might sound great, but like everything else in “Extraordinary,” it’s a very mixed bag.