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Hit & Miss Review

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by Casimir Harlow Sep 20, 2012 at 8:34 AM

    Take the working class family unit of Shameless and remove the drunken bone-idle father, Frank. Replace him instead with Luc Besson’s professional hitman, Leon. Now turn Leon, the hitman father of these children, into a pre-op transsexual woman. Confused? Put off? Well, it’d be a shame if you were, because then you’d miss out on this surprisingly watchable, sharply-written, well-acted and unquestionably different Brit TV mini-series.

    Created by Paul Abbott – who worked on Cracker, Touching Evil, Clocking Off, State of Play and, rather unsurprisingly, Shameless itself – Hit & Miss was borne from the unlikely fusion of two distinct ideas that landed on his desk: a pitch for a story about a transsexual mother of five young children, and a tale about a hitman. Abbott was himself the survivor of a tough childhood scenario – his mother leaving him and his eight siblings when he was just 9 years old; his good-for-nothing father leaving just two years later; him and the rest of the children surviving under the care of their pregnant, 16-year-old eldest sister – it’s a story he’d already brought to life several times, most notably for the starkly dark and humorous Shameless. He also dealt with the idea of a group of young orphaned children going to stay with their trans-gender aunt in the TV movie Mrs In-Betweeny. Blending these ideas would have arguably been nothing more than recycling old material for him, but adding in the twist of the mother being not only a pre-op woman, but also being a professional contract killer? Well, that did make for something different.

    Mia is a contract killer. She’s the best at her game. She works for Eddie, a small-time handler working out of a bar in Manchester. She’s also a few months’ away from being able to afford the last operation that will finally make her a complete woman. A few years ago, when she was still a man in denial, she was in a supposedly happy relationship with a woman and, unbeknownst to her, fathered a son. When her ex-partner dies of cancer, she learns about this young boy, Ryan, and decides to pay him and his step-siblings a visit. Despite a distinctly unfriendly reception – where the eldest teenager in the family makes it very clear that she is going to be able to take care of the rest of them without any help from ‘outsiders’ – Mia soon discovers that she was actually named by her ex as the guardian to all four children. Her life is about to get a whole lot more complicated.

    Hit & Miss, on paper, doesn’t really do anything new and unusual in terms of plot or character development. The beats across the 6-episode mini-series are arguably all fairly predictable, with only a couple of left-field twists, and the rest following the on-rails design you’d expect from either the plight of a hitman-with-a-growing-conscience or the plight of an estranged parent who’s been reunited with their angry, defensive young children. It’s the blend of the two dynamics though that gives the show the edge, keeping the episodes fresh in spite of the seemingly clear path that has been predetermined for these lost souls. You might know what to expect when an estranged parent is reunited with their children, but what if that parent also happens to be a hitman and a pre-op transsexual? Intersplicing the two creates a surprisingly unpredictable mix. Between that and the excellent performances, you have a very atypical concept which will likely hook you in and win you over by the end of just the very first episode.

    Chloe Sevigny has never been afraid of those more daring roles – in fact she’s actually made a name for herself as being something of an indie film queen, celebrated for her predisposition toward controversy. From her debut in the under-age-sex drama, Kids, as a teenager with HIV, to her co-starring in the equally controversial Boys Don’t Cry – her first taste of alternative sexual dynamics, playing the girlfriend of an intersexed Hilary Swank – she’s always been prepared to do whatever it takes: never more evident than in 2003 art-house film Brown Bunny, in which she performed unsimulated fellatio on her co-star, Vincent Gallo (also the film’s director). It could have destroyed her career, but she’s somehow only gone from strength to strength, still largely eschewing mainstream roles, but nevertheless securing regular work in numerous projects – including a lead role across five seasons of the TV drama Big Love, about fundamentalist Mormon polygamists.

    She is perfectly cast as Mia, the pre-op transsexual star of Hit & Miss, who is very good at what she does – killing people for money – and is reaching the final stages of her long-overdue sex-change procedure, but who didn’t anticipate being thrown in the deep end with a ready-made family she never knew about. All of a sudden Mia has to think about more than just herself, electing to rise above the harsh words and knee-jerk reaction of these orphaned children, and leave behind her sparse city apartment in favour of the rural farm which represents the last vestiges of home to the kids. Now she has to juggle her career and her new family priorities, attempting to earn the respect and friendship of these youngsters – against all odds – whilst also trying to protect them from financial and emotional burdens.

    Across the course of the season we see Sevigny truly become this character, initially the situation with respect to her unfinished sex-change op is hammered home explicitly – it’s one of those rare instances where stark, full-frontal nudity (with Sevigny wearing a wholly convincing prosthetic) is not in the least bit sexual, but, indeed, very very necessary – and, as the series goes on, we find Mia very troubled by her ongoing physical condition of being still half-man, frustrated by a clear-cut emotional and psychological knowledge that she’s all-woman. Sevigny reportedly was quite disturbed by some of the more under-the-skin aspects of the character – finding it heartbreaking to play somebody who was so uneasy in their own body – but she never holds back in the role; one horrific scene has her hitting herself, clenched fist, in the groin, whilst mocking herself in the mirror for being a freak. It’s a great character – tragic and vulnerable within, but strong and outwardly commanding, making you at once admire and respect her, whilst also feeling compelled to find out what happens to her on this eventful journey.

    The younger child actors bring us four characters who could quite easily be cousins of the band from Shameless – although that’s no criticism; they’re a raggedy quartet of rough-around-the-edges kids, borne from a dysfunctional family and out of the ultimate requirement to survive the horrors of life.

    Karla Crome (who you may recognise from the Channel 4 TV series, Misfits, or from the recent, excellent BBC one-off, Murder) is expectedly impressive as the eldest teenage girl, Riley, who has taken care of this family ever since their mother was diagnosed with cancer. However young she is, she’s not prepared to relinquish her position at the head of the family without Mia proving that she will be there for them all, no matter what. Riley also has her own issues – an ongoing, ill-advised affair with the much older married man, John, who actually owns the house that they are all staying in. Needless to say, Mia’s arrival throws her whole world into a spin.

    Reece Noi (Waterloo Road, Silk) plays the eldest boy, Levi, who is capable of spitting some pretty venomous words at Mia when she first arrives on the scene, and who perpetually suffers from the consequences of his own foolish actions. Perfectly chosen for the naive hot-head role, Noi’s Levi is even harder to win over than Riley, but is also certainly not an impenetrable cliché. The younger step-daughter, Leonie, is brought to life buy a suitably ethereal performance from Roma Christensen – plagued by strange sounds that she hears from the old two-way radio they have (which she assumes to be coming from her dead mother), and Mia’s actual son, the young Ryan, is played by Jordan Bennie as a slight, frustrated boy who forges an unusual father-and-mother bond with Mia, both jumping at the opportunity to learn how to defend himself (she teaches him boxing), whilst also confused by who she really is: she looks like she’s supposed to be his mother, but she acts like – and is – his father.

    A quartet of additional adults supplants the quartet of younger acts – Vincent Regan (Lockout, 300) on typically villainous form as the downright nasty John, Peter Wight (Pride & Prejudice, Naked) excelling as Mia’s generous but not-without-a-harsh-streak boss, Eddie, Jonas Armstrong (BBC’s Robin Hood) as the slightly out-of-his depth Ben, who takes a shine to Mia but then has to contend with her Crying Game-esque revelations, and Ben Crompton (Clocking Off) as the rather strange Uncle to the kids, watching over them in his own peculiar way. They’re all great choices to round out the cast. Indeed it’s a testament to the strength of the supporting performances that, in spite of Sevigny’s powerful lead drive, this isn’t just a one-man-show.

    Although far from high budget, Hit & Miss still looks fairly stylish, with a few nice flourishes around the edges – the butterfly twist is excellent – and some beautifully captured sequences (one of the best that stands out is the rolling shot as we arrive at the beach towards the end of the season). At times fondly reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s recent, highly atmospheric, adaptation of Wuthering Heights in the way in which it captures the countryside – focussing in and out on trees as plants as the cold wind blows over them – this may well be a fairly limited-scope family drama at its heart, but that doesn’t mean that the two directors who filmed three episodes each weren’t interested in giving it a suitably moody look to reflect the content. Whilst it may not boast the production values or sheer budget of some of its Sky Atlantic-broadcast counterparts, this little mini-series still looks surprisingly polished.

    Of course, Hit & Miss might not be to everybody’s tastes. Indeed the Sky Atlantic took quite a gamble on the atypical subject-matter – they may receive almost half of their broadcast programmes from the ever-reliable, ever-excellent HBO (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones) but there’s a difference between the more ‘mainstream’ sex and violence of some of those shows, and the unusual tastes of this one. I suppose it’s no surprise then that this will remain the only series of Hit & Miss that we will ever see. Despite ending on an ostensible cliffhanger, with the cast and crew all talking about the ideas they had for a second season (and some of the cast being optioned for more than one season), in early September Sky Atlantic announced that there would be no second season, and that actually Hit & Miss was conceived as a standalone mini-series. I suspect that the cast are probably a little bit confused about this revelation but, as far as viewers are concerned, it’s not the end of the world story-and-character-wise; the overt cliffhanger ending did not actually need further explanation: it offered a strange but natural end to the proceedings.

    So, if you fancy something a little different, give Hit & Miss a shot. It may be strangely comfortable territory for anyone familiar with the works of Paul Abbott (or even those who follow Chloe Sevigny’s consistently daring performances) and it’s certainly interesting to see just how you respond to the unusual everything’s-the-same, but everything’s-different, feel to the drama. Surprisingly brutal in its gory violence, strangely alluring in its sexuality, and unflinchingly explicit – as with all the best dramas – you’ll actually find yourself compelled by the excellent performances and strong writing. Recommended.