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Extraordinary: a witty and touching addition to the superhero canon

This review contains spoilers.

Extraordinary (on Disney+) is not the first programme to imagine how superheroes would fit into the real world. Disney+ is actually late to the party, as Netflix and Prime have already established their presence here with The Umbrella Academy and The Boys. Created by Emma Moran, in her screenwriting debut, and joined by a talented cast of British and Irish newcomers, Extraordinary is simultaneously a light-hearted comedy and a pensive reflection of the fallibility of both man and superman.

Left to right: Jizzlord (Luke Rollason), Kash (Billal Hasna), Carrie (Sofia Oxenham), Jen (Máiréad Tyers).

While the creative team may lack so-called industry experience, the show integrates itself seamlessly into the established success of the thirty-minute British/Irish sit-com, following the tried and tested formula of exploring the lives of a quirky group of cohabiting twenty-somethings. It’s no coincidence however, that one of the creatives with a blue name on Wikipedia is established producer Charles Palmer, known for directorial work on the wildly successful 00s Doctor Who renaissance. Overall, Extraordinary’s freshness is an asset; it’s clear that a small but dedicated team worked to create something brilliant because they genuinely wanted to create good art. It’s a passion project (spun out of Moran’s screenwriting MA) with a great deal of thought going into every frame, every line. Subtle jokes linger in the background (which I revelled in pointing out and explaining to my co-watcher) and are never directly addressed because the show doesn’t have to patronise its audience and announce - “hey look at this funny thing!” or “don’t miss this joke over here!” The comedy is mulit-faceted and the cast excels especially in physical comedy – one of the leads trained at the prestigious clown school, L'Ecole Philippe Gaulier.

Extremely-online superpowers such as a man who can turn “anything” into a PDF, or the guy who 3D prints out of his anus, assemble alongside more traditional powers such as super-strength, invisibility and the ability to turn back time. Though certainly whimsical, Extraordinary is a surprisingly accurate thought experiment of a superhero society since Mr Incredible got sued for saving someone who didn’t want to be saved. It’s entirely believable that some superpowers would be whipped out as quirky, party tricks while the more usefully-empowered wield serious privilege and social capital over those yet to discover their powers, including such as the protagonist Jen. But like its comedy, the social commentary is nuanced and just one of many lenses that the show can be viewed through. It’s also notably gendered; in-depth examinations of male and female friendships, fizzling long-term relationships and family trauma add further depth to the sit-com format. Moran explores the pressures of female relationships from toxic school environments to the challenges of accepting maternal support. Masculinity also gets its turn in the limelight: when Kash’s all-male vigilante task-force to help women get home safely at night disastrously backfires, Extraordinary subverts the chivalric stereotype of macho heroes gallantly rescuing damsels in distress.

While my main issue with the trillion-dollar multiverse is that there’s no real sense of peril because the forces of good are always stronger than evil, Extraordinary imagines a particularly pensive, and ultimately much more human, superhero world. In the words of actor Luke Rollason, the superpowers, as reflections of the characters’ own insecurities, are inextricably interwoven with their flawed personalities. Feelings of inadequateness among all characters provide a melancholy emotional core. Jen’s lack of a superpower, especially juxtaposed against her younger sister's newly acquired super-strength, is the ultimate inadequacy. Moreover, every power creates its own insecurities. Gordon (Eros Vlahos) can make people orgasm from a single handshake, but wears a glove during sex because he wants to retain his own ability to make people come as an ordinary human. In the finale, a brutal break-up scene (accompanied by Soft Cell’s caustic anthem on mediocre relationships, Say Hello, Wave Goodbye) explores the limits of time-travel (which is also an extremely well-written mind-fuck) as a metaphor for the absolute helplessness of knowing that a relationship cannot be saved, and left me an emotional wreck.

Extraordinary is an interesting insight into how massive American studios are forging relationships with undiscovered talent much closer to home, in order to create “relevant” originals, and ultimately dominate in the streaming wars. It’s a strategy that Disney+ are pulling off. Authentic and unique, Extraordinary is one of the best pieces of television I have ever seen.

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