Friday, February 3, 2023

In 'Extraordinary,' British classism mutates into super-classism

This surreal twist on the "loser roommate" comedy format is a clever metaphor for the ways the same old cutthroat rat race hits even harder for the post-Brexit generation

If superhero stories are metaphors about power, how should we read a fictional world where literally everyone is a superhero? In the new Disney/Hulu comedy series Extraordinary, set in a modern-day Britain where superpowers are a normal part of life, it reads as a satire of the Thatcherite fantasy that insists that everyone has an opportunity and those who don't make it are simply not trying hard enough.

Jen, our protagonist, hasn't gotten her superpower yet, and she's internalized the social consensus that, without a talent that makes her unique, she's stuck in a directionless life. She's going nowhere in her job life, her love life, or her family life, and a medical treatment that would allegedly fix her is just too expensive to consider.  In a particularly biting scene, a friend asks her about her marketable skills, and when she replies she has none, he blurts out, "So what's the point ot you?"

Economic anxiety looms like a ghost over every character in the series, and in a couple scenes, the idea of Margaret Thatcher is cited as a harbinger of everything that is going wrong. The last thing Britain needed after centuries of blatant classism was Thatcherism, and the last thing it needed after half a century of Thatcherism was half a decade of Brexit. The already hypercompetitive, highly divided Britain that entered the 21st century is now clashing against the realization that the Sex Pistols' warning about "No Future" is becoming literally true.

Jen's desperation to feel valued for herself is completely normal, perhaps the only normal response to a world where people are judged based on factors outside of their control. Because she believes that getting a superpower will solve all her problems, she tries to make quick money with a talent show, she tries to make it into the music industry, she tries to sell her eggs. The actual problem is a system that sets up people to be each other's rivals, which is why Jen's quest to find a shortcut to victory is doomed from the start.

Her struggles with the costs of private healthcare aren't the only parallel with reality. Her roommate, whose power is talking to the dead, feels underappreciated at work and taken for granted at home. Her sister, who has just gained super strength, is under the pressures typical of an overachieving family. Her one-time botched date, who has the power to cause orgasms, has no chances for normal human contact until he gives in and uses his power to make a living.

The uncertainty of a Britain that can't imagine a future and looks longingly to the past is explored repeatedly across the series. Jen's roommate who talks to the dead keeps finding that everyone she channels has horrible political opinions. Her other roommate can turn back time, but it hardly solves anything and he finds it exhausting to go back too often. An old classmate can replay memories, but all that does is reveal that the past wasn't as rosy as people remember it. The most literal of these metaphors is Jen's boss, stuck in a too young body that will never grow up. Time and again, Extraordinary makes the point that, whatever our present problems, trying to retreat back isn't helpful.

Alone in mediocrity, surrounded by success, Jen's story isn't unlike post-Brexit Britain, left behind in its isolation while Europe's prospects are looking up. However, the trends that Brexit has exacerbated were already in motion. The disheartening consequence of an economy where common people's best hope is to randomly become an overnight celebrity is a normalized callousness in human relations. With professional respect having taken the place of interpersonal respect, it's hard to focus on what truly makes us worthy of love. The realization that it's OK to be a loser, that you shouldn't have to monetize your joy, that "wanting more" can become an addiction, that life shouldn't be a perpetual talent contest comes almost too late for Jen, but in the end she learns the fundamental lesson that defines Generation Z: you have the option of no longer trying to play an unwinnable game.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.