Pop Culture Happy Hour
'Extraordinary' isn't about superpowers. No, really.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
A warning - this episode contains explicit language.
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WELDON: The very funny Hulu comedy "Extraordinary" is about a smart but directionless young woman named Jen, who lives in the big city and doesn't feel great about herself. She's dealing with those feelings of inadequacy and alienation by flatly refusing to deal with them at all. Instead, she hurls herself into a lot of hilariously bad choices about sex, friendships, family and more. That's a familiar comedy premise, of course, but there's more to "Extraordinary," because in the world of the series, Jen is the only one she knows who does not possess superpowers. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "Extraordinary" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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WELDON: Joining me today, back, back, back again is Christina Tucker, co-host of the podcast, "Wait, Is This A Date?" Welcome back, Christina.
CHRISTINA TUCKER: Hello, my friend. Thrilled to be here.
WELDON: Always great to have you. So on "Extraordinary," Mairead Tyers plays Jen, a 25-year-old Northern Irish woman living in East London. Everyone else in the human race gets superpowers on or about their 18th birthday, but Jen's still haven't kicked in. Her long-suffering best friend and roommate, Carrie, played by Sofia Oxenham, can channel the dead. Bilal Hasna plays Carrie's deadbeat boyfriend, Kash. He can turn back time by a few seconds. We also meet a character played by Luke Rollason, who's got a case of superpowers-related amnesia. Jen's not on great terms with her younger, overachieving half-sister, Andy, played by Safia Oakley-Green, and she's got a contentious relationship with her mom, played by the great and good Siobhan McSweeney, who plays Sister Michael on "Derry Girls." Jen's mom can control electronics, or she would, if she understood how they worked. So you get the point. "Extraordinary" may be set in a world of superhumans, but it's more concerned with the humans than it is with the super. "Extraordinary" is the first series created and written by Emma Moran. All eight episodes are streaming on Hulu. Christina, talk to me. "Extraordinary" - what did you think?
TUCKER: I had such a fun time with this show. I loved how built out the world is and that we are beyond the place of asking questions about who, what, where, when, why this gift comes to people. I don't care. It's a gift. They have it or in some cases, they do not. I loved that this show did a really good job of kind of dialing in to not only the selfishness of our main character, Jen, but the selfishness of people generally.
TUCKER: The powers they have are used, honestly, rarely for good, rarely for anything but to, like, impress other people and themselves quite often, which did make it very fun to watch because I was sitting there thinking, this is not making me want superpowers...
TUCKER: ...But maybe I still do. I thought all of the relationships are really beautifully observed and written, and it felt, somehow, like a world I recognized, despite the fact that there are people who can make PDFs out of anything as a superpower.
WELDON: Yes, that's a thing. I mean, you nailed it 'cause in the intro, I talked about Jen's mental health and her bad choices, and I kind of snuck in the superpower stuff at the end there, because I know so many people are going to be like, oh, superpowers - I'm out. And this show - it's not about the superpowers, except in a sense it is because it's about how ordinary and messy humanity is, or at least humanity at this specific phase of life.
WELDON: You know, she's in her 20s, when you're feeling stuck and overlooked and when you're watching your friends succeed, or worse, when you're watching your enemies succeed. But it all works - right?
TUCKER: Yeah, it all makes sense.
WELDON: ...Because the worldbuilding is just there, but it's not there to - we don't get a scrawl. We don't get a voiceover, thank god. We don't get her turning to the camera to explain anything. It's just asserted. And, you know, let's not turn this into a graduate seminar, but there's everything working on a kind of a metaphorical level. I mean, Carrie has other people speaking through her, so she starts to wonder why nobody ever wants to hear what she might have to say. And Kash keeps turning back time to try to be a better boyfriend. But he's breaking, I think, the second law of thermodynamics to just gaslight his girlfriend. And...
WELDON: ...Jen has a hookup who literally flies out the window after sex. We never get quite the full metaphorical breakdown of the man with a 3D printer in his butt. But - you know, and I don't necessarily want to unpack that too much, but I'm sure...
TUCKER: Well, there's a lot to say there, a lot to say there.
WELDON: There's a lot. But see, like, that's the thing. I kind of want to warn people about this show because this tone...
WELDON: ...Super broad, comically broad, very silly, often kind of dumb. And I've been trying to talk to people about the tone, about what to expect, and I'm coming up dry with things to compare it to. Do you have any suggestions, anything it reminds you of?
TUCKER: I don't think there's a one-to-one, but I think the closest I came is a combination of "Please Like Me," right? You've got...
WELDON: Oh, sure.
TUCKER: ...A kind of group of friends with a self-centered, like, protagonist who are kind of directionless but do care about each other. And then I think also "Doom Patrol."
WELDON: Oh, that's good.
TUCKER: I think that's the closest I can get. If you imagine a marriage of those two shows, I think this is where you would land. "Doom Patrol's" got the superpowers that are weird, and there are butts in that as well. And their...
TUCKER: ...Butts show up here. I think that is, like, the closest comparisons base I could make for those shows.
WELDON: Oh, that makes sense to me because I've been saying "Spaced" meets "Fleabag," but that really kind of oversells it 'cause it's not - those are a very high bar to clear.
TUCKER: It's a high bar.
WELDON: It's a very high bar. I think it meets it though. I mean, this is entirely my jam. But...
WELDON: ...It's not going to be for everyone. But I think one thing the show does that really smart is it kind of delivers a mission statement in that very first scene...
WELDON: ...Which is - she's at a job interview. Just to set this up, we have a clip. And unbeknownst to Jen, her interviewer is someone with the power to make people tell the absolute truth. And so the interviewer lobs a very easy question at the start by just asking her how her trip into the office that day was.
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MAIREAD TYERS: (As Jen) It was terrible. I got the bus because I'm poor, and it smelled like warm, raw chicken. And I'm really nervous, so I thought I was going to s*** myself the whole way in, but I didn't. And if I'm sitting weirdly, it's because I think my tampon's come out, but I didn't have time to go to the bathroom downstairs 'cause I slept in because I spent so long last night trying to make myself c**. But I couldn't 'cause of my antidepressants.
WELDON: All right. Now, if you all are scoring at home, that is poop, menstruation, and masturbation in the first 30 seconds. And even there, like, the superpower that's being used isn't really there to just be, look at this wacky superpower. It's there to get us inside Jen's head, like, as a shortcut right into it.
TUCKER: Right into it. And I think something that is really thrilling about this show is just the confidence in which it throws us into this world and continues through the - out this story. I never felt like I was at any point in the hands of someone who was like, do - are they going to know how to wrap this up? Or are they going to know how to, like, you know, complete this arc in a satisfying way? Everything felt so observed and real that I was like, this feels like a reality, even though, again, there are 3D printers in butts, there are butts sticking out of walls, there are very sad costumes being made for an attempt to be a vigilante group. Like, there's a lot of good, like, kind of nutty stuff that's happening, but it's also grounded and realistic that it just feels like, yeah, this is what would happen if we all had superpowers.
WELDON: Yeah, and that's what the show is saying, right? It's saying that even something as miraculous as everybody getting superpowers, how would it change humanity? This show comes back with the assertion that it wouldn't.
TUCKER: It really wouldn't.
WELDON: This show is about settling. Everybody on the show has settled. Humanity hates change, so everyone gets a superpower but then simply makes it a part of their dumb, boring lives. You know, systems don't change.
WELDON: Carrie's employer is still exploiting her power without compensating her for it. And, you know, after the first episode, you could be thinking, OK, this is a one-joke show, but there's been real thought to the world. I mean, we don't know how it happened but just that something happened 10 years ago. There are still bleak, depressing little party stores on every corner. But the balloons get blown up by a guy who breathes helium. That's his superpower. One of my favorite touches is there is - next to Jen's apartment, there is a shuttered-up comic book shop because why do you need comics anymore if everybody has superpowers?
TUCKER: Who's reading a comic?
WELDON: When she goes to a school, her old school, there's all these chirpy posters on the wall that are very, like, up with people, very, like, some people have visible farts; that's just life. And you're like, yeah, they've done some real thinking.
TUCKER: They really have. And I loved, you know, because Jen doesn't have powers, there's this idea that there's, like, you know, this whole company whose job it is to help you find powers. And, like, of course what they are doing is exploiting people who don't have powers for so much money. Like, it all just tracks.
WELDON: It tracks.
TUCKER: And I did keep thinking as I was watching - I was like, it's wild that there's no real booms in infrastructure, technology. We have done none of those things. No, no. Instead, if I have power that can control water, I'm just going to make sure it splashes on the woman next to me instead of me, and I'm going to keep my day kind of moving. Yeah, it felt a little grim but in a way that I was like, well, it seems fair for where we are right now.
WELDON: Fair. Bleak but fair.
TUCKER: Bleak but fair.
WELDON: And there is some cause for hope 'cause you mentioned the vigilante group, who are just these sad dudes who decide that they're going to put on costumes and save women, protect women.
TUCKER: And sad they are.
WELDON: And it posits a world in which the leadership of this group is not determined by election or by consensus or by competition but by which one of these men can locate the clitoris on a diagram. And I watched that, and I was like, oh, that's funny. These guys are doofuses. And then I thought it for a little bit longer, and it's like, what is it positing here, right? Because I don't have a horse in this race. I'm a gay man. But even I know how much that would objectively improve society if that's - imagine a world - imagine a legislature where that's how we chose our leaders.
TUCKER: And they simply can't do it, you know? And it's kind of harrowing to watch a group of gentlemen sit around and fumble and think and wonder.
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CHRIS LEW KUM HOI: (As Gregor) How can you lead a group saving women when you don't know where the clid (ph) is?
BILAL HASNA: (As Kash) The what?
HOI: (As Gregor) The clid.
HASNA: (As Kash) Do you mean the clit?
HOI: (As Gregor) That's what I said.
HASNA: (As Kash) No, you said clid with a D.
HOI: (As Gregor) He's stalling. I think we should...
HASNA: (As Kash) I can do it.
TUCKER: Dark stuff.
WELDON: One of the things I want to tackle here, also, is this notion that Jen is unlikable. That is a word - whenever I see a critic or anyone, you know, anybody call a character unlikable, I always think that says more about the critic than the character itself because - I mean you mentioned this. Likability, it's boring. It's a mug's game. It's a cheat. You can game it really easily. Just have the character save a cat. Boom, likable. And it's a word that also tends to get slapped to female characters more than...
WELDON: ...Male characters. I mean, nobody said Don Draper was unlikable, even though he was famously a jerk. I don't know. What do you make of Jen? She's selfish. She's impulsive. She's thoughtless.
TUCKER: I mean, the combination of being in that, like, kind of mid-20s directionless zone, I remember it well. I don't think I was as obnoxious. But listen; I've got friends who could say otherwise, and I would not disagree with them.
TUCKER: And the other thing I kept thinking was I would be the worst person on Earth if everyone around me had some sort of superpower and I did not. You would have to send me away. I would have to be killed. I would be a monster every second of every day. Everything would be about me and how unfair my life was. And I find that very relatable. And just because it is, at times, unpleasant to watch, does not mean it is not worth putting your eyes on, I would say.
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, she's thoughtless. She's in her 20s. We are her. She is us.
WELDON: We are she.
WELDON: And it's the feelings that she's stewing in. And this is, again, the metaphorical level of the show. She's stewing in these feelings. And people who kind of - you know, and I've seen some bubbling up online here about how she's unlikable and how, you know, I would never treat anybody that way. And yet, you would. You probably have. You just didn't know it...
WELDON: ...'Cause yours is an unexamined life.
TUCKER: It's very easy to watch someone make a bad decision and be like, never me, never I. But, like, that is not how humans work, turns out...
TUCKER: ...A lot of the times in life. And I think one thing that is lovely about this show is as we get to see her in her life and her friends and her family, I think, especially, you kind of understand where she is coming from and why she has arrived at this very emotionally stunted place. And again, I'm just like, I wouldn't believe her if she was a nice person. I would say, I don't know how you're a nice person. Explain...
WELDON: (Laughter) That's right.
TUCKER: ...To me why.
WELDON: Is there anything else you wanted to hit that we haven't gotten to?
TUCKER: I think those are all my big points, especially that I just kept coming back to being like, ooh, I would want a power, but no, I wouldn't, but yes, I would. I really was having, like, a fun time with that internal debate as a viewer, just thinking, like, well, if I had a power, I want a good one. But, like, what is a good one in this world, really?
WELDON: I mean...
TUCKER: I guess, like, the flying.
WELDON: Sure. The flying is - that's unalloyed good. Summoning...
WELDON: ...Fish is - if you can't control them, you can merely summon them.
TUCKER: And then what do you do with them, you know? You bring one fish...
TUCKER: ...In a room, and then it's just flopping on the ground. And then you're like, well, there's a fish.
WELDON: There's a fish.
TUCKER: Like, I don't know. I don't know about that (laughter).
WELDON: I mean, if you're a pescatarian, I suppose that's a thing. But otherwise...
WELDON: ...That's just - it's a lot.
TUCKER: It's a lot. No, but I found it really charming and really, like, well-observed and thoughtful. And I think it's a lovely little show that kind of just appeared like a gift out of nowhere, like manna from heaven.
WELDON: I think we can all appreciate that gift.
WELDON: But we want to know what you think about "Extraordinary." Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Christina Tucker, thanks to you for being here.
TUCKER: Oh, an honor. A delightful time, as ever.
WELDON: Always. Always a delight.
We want to take a moment to thank our POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR+ subscribers. We appreciate you so much for showing your support of NPR. If you haven't signed up yet and you want to show your support and listen to the show without any sponsor breaks, head over to plus.npr.org/happyhour or visit the link in our show notes.
This episode was produced by Candice Lim and Hafsa Fathima and edited by Jessica Reedy. Audio engineering was performed by Tre Watson. And Hello Come In provides our theme music which you are summoning fish to right now. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow when we will be talking about the new movie "Knock At The Cabin."
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