Shape-shifters have a long history in folk tales and monster movies, and they are back again in “The Innocents,” a new series about a couple of teenage runaways, the people they are running from and the people they are running to.
Premiering Friday on Netflix and set mostly in the north of England and the west of Norway, it is a moody, misty drama that stays compelling even when it veers toward the obvious, with characters you care about even without knowing them well because they come across, most of them, as soulful even when they are not particularly nice.
June (Sorcha Groundsell) is in love with her classmate Harry (Percelle Ascott). It is a Romeo and Juliet sort of love, a first love, a forever, love-letter love, joyful and desperate and hidden from the world. It’s a hand-holding love. Holding hands! So important to young romance, yet so rarely depicted in popular fictions. Far from having been around the bases, these kids have yet to step up to the plate.
She has a dour father (Sam Hazeldine) who keeps a close watch on her — feeding her some sort of pill at breakfast, bodily delivering her to her high school locker — and a brother (Arthur Hughes) so agoraphobic he gets his meals through a slot in the wall. Each sibling is in a sort of prison – imprisonment being a motif here — with June about to be dragged off to a remote Scottish island. Harry’s father, on whom he tenderly attends, is locked in what appears to be dementia. That Harry is watching a documentary about octopuses with him feels significant; they are known escape artists, those cephalopods, and Harry and June are preparing to go on the run.
Meanwhile in Norway, at the far end of a fjord in what might be a prison as well, we find Dr. Halvorson (Guy Pearce) and three women (Laura Birn, Lise Risom Olsen and Ingunn Beate Øyen) in a Scandinavian menage that suggests the genre movie Ingmar Bergman never got around to making. (He was Swedish, I know.) Halvorson, who dresses in old-fashioned Nordic threads like Max Von Sydow in “The Emigrants,” is treating two shape-shifting women who in states of heightened emotion assume the form of the first person they touch.
Halvorson comes across as the sort of apparently reasonable, if controlling, person whose agenda might hide another agenda, but creators Hania Elkington and Simon Duric keep you uncertain on that point through most of the series’ eight episodes. (Is it a first season or a limited series? Time will tell.)
You can guess from the above, and all that movies and television have taught you, that June, who is significantly turning 16, is going to come down with this affliction herself. Is it a blessing or a curse? Dracula found it convenient to become a bat, but ask Lawrence Talbot how it felt to turn into the Wolf Man, and you’ll get an entirely different answer.
It is in any case something of a relief to find that the awakening of this ability is not for the nth time accompanied by the sudden appearance of another young person, who hisses “Follow me!” and brings her to a seemingly abandoned warehouse where others of her different kind are gathering together for self-protection or an apocalyptic showdown between good and evil. This is not that kind of mutant show.
It is more of a mystery story; indeed, Harry’s mother (Nadine Marshall) is a police detective, with a twist of pursuit and coming-of-age elements that play to what one guesses is conceived as a significant segment of the target audience: the romantic young. Identity is a major concern, with June’s condition an extreme metaphor for the changes teenagers experience every day, in body and mind. “Am I me?” June wonders, waking up, having lately been someone else.
Clues and portents are planted from the beginning, and most everything ties up in the end — which is not to say it makes a neat package, or that it will necessarily be the present you want.
The great tracts of time “The Innocents” occupies allow for digressions and diversions, including the double act of Steinar (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), whom Halvorson has sent to bring him June by any means necessary, and Steinar’s own mostly-in-the-dark accomplice, Alf (Trond Fausa, whom some will remember from the Steven van Zandt Norwegian-American comedy “Lilyhammer,” which also happens to be the first original series to have worn the Netflix brand.)
There are bumps in the road. If the shape-shifting has at least vaguely the flavor of science, the fact that even morphed into another’s shape June’s reflection remains her own (and visible to others as well) is outright magic, though a point upon which the story leans. Halvorson’s therapy, which involves a slide projector, stock photographs and the barcarole from “The Tales of Hoffman,” looks pretty silly in action. The icy pop songs that score the story and the studious prettiness of the images can feel oddly suffocating. And there are times when characters make choices only for the sake of the drama; when the series reaches for a big idea it is less effective than when it simply lets the story play out — which is mostly what it does.
But all in all, it does things right; the characters react to stress as people do; they are liable to run screaming from things that should be impossible. None are preternaturally clever or strong. The heroes bumble as they try to be brave. Violence makes them sad. It’s appropriate to love them for it.
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd