Review: ‘The Society’ — teen utopia or scary place? — is ‘Lost’ without grown-ups
“The Society,” a teenage melodrama with an uncanny element and some timely civics lessons, streams into your life at midnight Friday on Netflix. A concoction of hormonal impulses and moral dilemmas, it can be daffy and even a little dumb, but it has some thematic ambition, a talented cast, eventful episodes and a core mystery that may keep you hanging on through its 10-episode first season, even when you know the answers will be less interesting than the questions.
We are in West Ham, Conn., a picture-book New England community afflicted by a powerful bad smell of untraceable origin. While it is supposedly being sorted out, five busloads of high school students “over the age of 16" are packed off on a field trip and awaken, after some spooky bad weather turns them around, in what appears to be their hometown, but without any of the people they left behind. The smell is gone too.
Being teenagers without supervision, the first thing they do — before they realize they are perhaps permanently on their own — is throw a party. They take over the church and dance in slow motion all over the Bibles and on the pews while Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” plays. In the light of morning they discover that every road out of town is blocked by a fairy tale forest and that there is no communication with the outside world. After some chaos, they begin the work of keeping chaos at bay. It is work some are less interested in than others.
In exploring how a new order is built in the absence of an old one — it is not accidentally named “The Society” — the show is a little bit “Lord of the Flies,” a little bit “Animal Farm,” with a touch of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and similar to at least two reality shows I can name without going online (“Kid Nation” and “Utopia”). A cousin of the “Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” it’s “Lost” without grown-ups, “Under the Dome,” also without grownups, and an echo of the 1969 collegiate castaways series called “The New People,” whose pilot was written by Rod Serling. It is fundamentally of a piece with most any high school drama you can name. Parents are only ghosts in most teen shows anyway.
The usual collection of extremely good-looking young people, nearly all, in the typical way of television high school dramas, played by actors too old for the parts, inhabit the series. (The distinct lack of facial hair among these 2019 high school kids — even after the adults go — is perhaps the least believable thing about “The Society.”)
You know the types: The Student Body President (Rachel Keller, from “Legion,” as much of a name as “The Society” has to offer), Her Overshadowed Younger Sister (Kathryn Newton), the Weak Rich Boy (Alex Fitzalan), the Rival (Grace Victoria Cox), the Dangerous One (Toby Wallace), the Science Guy (Jose Julian), the Church Girl (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), the Girl You Can’t Quite Make Out But Mostly Like (Kristine Froseth), the Thoughtful Jock (Jack Mulhern), the Friendless Girl (Olivia DeJonge), the Sensitive Fellow (Sean Berdy), who is best friends with the Ordinary Smart Girl (Gideon Adlon), and the Kid From the Wrong Side of the Tracks (Jacques Coliman). One or more of them is also a Secretly Gay Character. On balance, the girls are more mature and generous than the boys. Just like life!
They are defined mostly by their relationships — this is a teen romance as much as a sociopolitical metaphor, and so there are hookups and breakups and makeups and a bounty of lingering looks — and the degree to which they possess or crave power in the town they will rechristen New Ham. In one scene, late in the series, some briefly discuss the futures they once saw for themselves, but on the whole they lack specific detail — which does not stand in the way of some memorable performances (Newton’s most of all).
Perhaps to head off your logical objections, creator Christopher Keyser — whose “Party of Five” was also a story of children without parents — puts them as questions in the mouth of his characters. They will ask, as you well might, why the lights are still on and why they still have cell service, though only among themselves. (That they can reach their parents’ answering machines but not their parents seems a bit of a flub, scientifically, unless it’s just a magic thing.) One or another will wonder whether they have been kidnapped or rescued, are in Heaven, Hell, a parallel universe, a dream, “an elaborate … game,” another planet, an altered Earth, the Matrix or Narnia. Any other suggestions?
“The Society” is not what every family would deem appropriate material for the young viewers certainly targeted here, though it is not alien to actual teen experience or markedly different from what you encounter on basic cable. (No nudity, but plenty of suggested sexual activity; there is a bit of pot smoking, but there’s nothing more boringly common than that nowadays.)
The series has been engineered seemingly to spur discussion. There is an addiction story line; a pregnancy story line; a domestic abuse story line. Most interesting, the series actively engages questions of what we used to call “civics” — what it means to wield power, authority versus authoritarianism, communal versus private property, order without law and many other subjects germane to our own lives in 2019 but no longer routinely taught.
“Dissent isn’t a crime,” one character will say to the jock-policemen who are interrogating her. “Did you guys never pay attention in AP Gov?” Jock: “You think I was in AP Gov?”
Easy answers are not provided.
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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