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'Extraordinary' is a super-powered comedy that's broad, brash and bingeable

Carrie (Sofia Oxenham), left, and Jen (Máiréad Tyers) get powered up in <em>Extraordinary</em>.
Carrie (Sofia Oxenham), left, and Jen (Máiréad Tyers) get powered up in Extraordinary.

The jokes in Hulu's Extraordinary, set in a world in which every member of the human race acquires a super-power on or about their 18th birthday, come at you fast.

And broad. And silly.

Very silly, in point of fact. And, not infrequently, dumb.

Mostly, they come at you astride the thin, porous line between bawdy and vulgar, between clever and crass.

Don't believe me? Meet the one minor character who's been gifted with a butt that acts as a 3D printer. Or the dude whose merest touch causes people to orgasm (note also his extensive collection of gloves, a requirement that allows the poor schlub to live in society without wreaking a uniquely satisfying, if messy, degree of havoc).

The eight-episode UK comedy series, the debut of creator/writer Emma Moran, focuses on Jen (Máiréad Tyers) a 25-year-old Irish woman in East London whose power still hasn't manifested. She's not happy about this, and she's just self-obsessed enough to drag those she cares about down with her.

There's her long-suffering best friend and roommate Carrie (Sofia Oxenham), whose ability to channel the dead has her wondering if anyone ever cares what she might have to say. Carrie's layabout boyfriend Kash (Bilal Hansa) can reverse time, but uses this power largely to spare himself embarrassment by skipping back a few seconds to erase moments when he says something stupid. There's Jen's mother Mary (the great Siobhan McSweeney, Derry Girls' Sister Michael), who has the power to control electronics — which would be wonderful, if only she could figure out how they worked.

As Jen navigates her ordinary, underachieving existence by making a series of poor life choices (she keeps texting that aloof handsome guy who literally flies away after sex, for example), she strives to save money for a clinic that promises to unlock her super-power once and for all.

But while all (well, most) of the super-power gags getting tossed around here are clever enough, don't be fooled. They're not what's truly driving the series.

Extraordinary asks how something as miraculous as the sudden granting of mass super-powers would change humanity. And it makes a clever and sadly convincing case for its answer:

They wouldn't change us at all.

The series know that humanity's real super-power is the extent to which we collectively refuse to grow and change, to answer the call to adventure. Instead, as a species, we simply acclimate. We revert to form. Given any fresh opportunity, we greet the incredible, the miraculous, the new, with a blithe determination to render it ordinary, familiar, dull.

Extraordinary is a show about our tendency to settle.

You see it in every frame. It's there in the background, in the chirpy sloganeering of public health posters that strive to reassure ("Some people have visible farts! That's just LIFE!"). It's there in the shuttered-up comic book store on Jen's street — in a world of super-powers, what are comic book superheroes needed for? It's there in the nothing-new-under-the-sun way that Carrie's employer simply exploits her unique ability without compensating her fairly for it. And it's there in the way that Kash's decision to form a team of costumed crime-fighters is greeted by everyone around him as ridiculous and pointless on its face.

The reason that Extraordinary works, however, goes deeper: that same stasis, that same tendency to settle, resides at the core of every character. Jen talks a big game about wanting to find her power, but selfish decisions keep her from moving forward and actually making it happen. Carrie's friendship with the self-involved Jen is as unsatisfying to her as she finds sex with Kash — but she's not about to take the necessary steps to change either. A third roommate played by Luke Rollason suffers from powers-related amnesia, and is reluctant to discover what kind of person he used to be ("What if ... I don't like me?").

By the final episode, in small ways, Jen and her friends do manage to break free of their own lowered expectations, their self-abnegating choices. And it's all accomplished by virtue of something that's been working in the background of the series from the start.

Beneath the flashy powers and sight gags and broad character types, the attentive watcher will be able discern the series' raw heart just at the edge of hearing, beating away steadily in scenes that tackle the fraught friendship of Jen and Carrie or the strained relationship between Jen and her mother.

It's why these eight hugely bingeable episodes manage to come in for such a satisfying landing, buoyed aloft by a bracing and welcome sincerity that's always been there, mixed in among all those fart jokes.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.