Oops, the teens went and did a dystopia again. If you’re a fan of the YA genre, you’ve no doubt seen this story before: a group of teenagers stranded without the structures of adult society are forced to remake the world in their own image to survive. From William Golding‘s 1954 literary classic Lord of the Flies to The 100, The Woods, and so forth, there’s no shortage of stories about youth confronting the perils of leadership. That overfamiliar quality might leave a wash of “meh” in viewers’ mouths when they first turn to Netflix’s new YA drama The Society, but stick with it and you’ll find there’s plenty of potent storytelling and surprisingly deep ponderings in the first ten episodes, which blend survival horror with political analysis and CW-flavored teen drama.
Created by Party of Five co-creator Christopher Keyser and executive produced by The Amazing Spider-Man‘s Marc Webb (who also directs a number of episodes,) The Society takes place in the wealthy New England town of West Ham, following the classmates of the local high school on their long-awaited upperclassmen camping trip. After a quick goodbye to their parents, the teens board a bus for a long drive but twist, they wind up arriving right back in their home town. Except when they return, there are a few critical differences: all the adults have vanished, 911 doesn’t work, the internet is down (though they can still somehow text each other via iMessage), and seemingly endless forestlands suddenly surrounds the city borders, meaning there’s no way out. There’s also the matter of a mysterious smell that plagued the city before their departure (and yes, there’s a bit of a Leftovers-in-reverse vibe here,) and an inexplicable astronomical phenomenon that suggests something otherworldly might be afoot.
Left to their own devices, the teens immediately turn to partying, sex, and alcohol in a full-tilt “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks” embrace of their newfound freedom. That is until the ramifications of their sudden isolation start to sink in. An early death sets a precedent than anything can happen; then there’s the matter of limited resources like food and electricity, medical terrors like untreatable allergies and pregnancy in a post-doctor world, not to mention their de facto leader has a pacemaker. Once they grasp the potential for terror in their newfound reality, lines are quickly drawn in the sand; Cliques become contingents, and the privileged “haves” struggle to let go of their excess in the new world while the “have-nots” look to forge a better place for themselves in their new society.
Yale-bound class president Cassandra (Rachel Keller, utterly unfathomable as a high schooler in a post-Legion world) takes up the mantle as the leader. Her know-it-all attitude rubs plenty of folks the wrong way, (especially the boys, who blame her for their girlfriends’ sudden unified assertion of power — no doubt a pointed and intentional storyline in the aftermath of the 2016 election) but Cassandra is the only one with a real plan and she adeptly sets up a semi-socialist way of living that allows them to survive. Meanwhile, her sister Allie (Kathryn Newton) struggles to step out of Cassandra’s shadow, while Allie’s disenfranchised wrong-side-of-the-tracks BFF Will (Jacques Colimon) strives to carve out a new lifestyle by their sides.
On the side of villainy, we have the resident sexy psycho Campbell (Toby Wallace), who wastes no time shaking up the order and showing his true (very dark) colors. Campbell is a prime Depressive Demon Nightmare Boy (the brilliant answer to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl), except you have to replace “Depressive” with “Full-on Psychotic.” All he needs is a mustache to twirl, but that wouldn’t go with his lewk. Even if he is a black-and-white monster, he makes for a pretty compelling monster to be locked in a cage with. Wallace’s dangerous charm and teen dream visage are sure to spark an equal number of fanfictions and think pieces, but for all of Campbell’s scenery-chewing villainy, it’s his girlfriend/captive Elle (Olivia DeJonge) who is ultimately the most compelling character in their Sid and Nancy lust-fuelled nightmare. The school outcast looking for a bit of security, Elle turns to the exact wrong place in her moment of crisis and DeJonge channels that survivor’s edge she flaunted in The Visit and Better Watch Out to transform her abuse survivor into a wickedly clever (and possibly dangerous) force in her own right.
Other key players include Harry (Alex Fitzalon), a football player who embodies peak entitled golden boy entitlement, his equally gorgeous and privileged but much more “greater good” minded girlfriend Kelly (Netflix regular Kristine Froseth), Sam (Sean Berdy), a scene-stealing semi-out gay boy who is also deaf, and his best friend Becca (played by Newton’s Blockers co-star Gideon Adlon), who is contending with an unexpected pregnancy. Their bond is one of the best in the show, sketched with complexity and honesty that grants them a sort of honor and maturity rarely afforded to teenagers in YA storytelling.
That’s quite a lot and it’s just scratching the surface of the character lineup. In truth, the bounty of players means that some are more thinly sketched than others. The stereotypical jocks and cool girls and geniuses don’t get as much to do, and none of the tertiary characters amount to more than broad strokes in a crowded landscape. But the crowd of no-names also allows for some surprising contenders to the seat of power as the season wears on, as well as equally surprising dramatic arcs for characters who first seem one-dimensional — see the religious good girl Helena (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and the quiet jock Grizz (Jack Mulhern), both played by relative unknowns poised to break out, who get two of the most compelling romantic relationships on the show.
By and large, The Society is a show that gives teenagers a lot of credit. Sure, this is an Ivy League-bound group of hyper-educated kids who drop literary, historical, and biblical references as casually as F-bombs, and yes, they’re all played by twenty-somethings who read on-screen as college students, but The Society doesn’t talk down to its core demographic, and it doesn’t manufacture drama on the basis of “because teenagers!” The Society tackles all the musts of teen TV in 2019 — gender roles, queerness, masculinity in crisis, surviving abuse, disability, teen pregnancy, etc., but what really sets it apart is a self-seriousness that translates as both an asset and a burden, depending on the scene.
Despite some requisite silliness surrounding melodramatic moments (especially the utter lack of subtlety in the dialogue), The Society is more interested in tragedy and political examination than hot hookups and soapy teen drama — but yeah, that too — using the backdrop of an over-familiar YA concept as the basis to explore what makes a functional society and how human beings behave when the structures are suddenly stripped away. The kids of West Ham learn the hard way that all the tenets of democracy we take for granted don’t come easy, and The Society takes time to explore hot button topics like gun ownership, the death penalty, and perversions of power. Best of all, you usually understand everyone’s perspective to some degree (well, not Campbell, he’s just horrible,) and the show does a good job of demonstrating how difficult it is to maintain order without becoming a police state.
For all it gets right, that same self-seriousness can come off as preachy and extremely self-important at times, and the series occasionally falters in pacing and structure. The first few episodes feel like a grind, but an early shocker propels the series into much more interesting territory. It’s fair to say that there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, but few stories tackle these themes and tropes with such earnest thoughtfulness, which leads to some genuine and poignant moments between the delicious melodrama. Some will be frustrated by the series’ utter lack of interest in answering its many mysteries (seemingly equal parts a ploy to ensure binge-mode and a natural necessity of telling a more thoughtful story), but I must confess I absolutely smashed the “play next” button at the end of each episode and genuinely felt bummed out when I burned through them all.
Is The Society a show about sort-of whiny privileged kids in an overfamiliar YA set up? Yes. Absolutely, there’s no denying that. But it’s a pretty damn good one, and the growing pains in the first season only make me excited to see where The Society will take us in the future (Season 2 hasn’t been ordered yet, but it’s hard to imagine this won’t be a hit for Netflix with its cast of teen stars and hyper-bingeable drama). As off-putting as it can be at times, as long as the series stays true to its intensity and intensive analysis of gender, class, and sexuality, it’s poised to remain one of the best YA shows on TV right now.
The Society premieres Friday, May 10th on Netflix.