5:15am PT by Emma Dibdin
'The Society' Creator on Crafting Netflix's "Post-Parkland" YA Drama
[This story contains spoilers from the season one finale of Netflix's The Society.]
Netflix's new YA drama The Society has been widely described as a modern riff on Lord of the Flies, centered on a group of high schoolers who arrive home from a camping trip to find their town deserted. Upon further inspection, they realize that the town has been effectively turned into an island, sealed off from the rest of the world by a mysterious and impenetrable forest. With no parents, no school and no rules, the teenagers are forced to rebuild a society from scratch. Led first by Cassandra (Rachel Keller) and then her sister Allie (Kathryn Newton), the group wrestles with logistical issues around food and housing, the ongoing mystery of what has happened to them, and deeper questions about how violence and morality work in a world run by teenagers.
"Every conversation that [co-creator and director] Marc [Webb] and I had was a kind of post-Parkland conversation," creator Chris Keyser tells The Hollywood Reporter, discussing the rise of teenage activism in the wake of the February 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. "About what this generation of kids is thinking, and how they're interested in remaking the world in some ways." Although the Lord of the Flies comparison suggests that this story is headed toward an inevitably vicious climax, The Society instead suggests that the next generation might not be worse off for getting the chance to start fresh. "Although the show has the specter of chaos hanging over it," Keyser continues, "part of it is also potentially optimistic."
Below, Keyser discusses why a major character had to die early in the season, how watching The Leftovers radically changed his idea of the show, and how future seasons will resolve the central mystery. [Editor's note: THR was advised to not ask Keyser, co-chair of the WGA's negotiating committee, questions about the guild's battle with agencies over packaging fees during the phone interview. THR was advised that the showrunner would respond to those queries over email. His responses had not arrived by press time.]
The Society has been compared to Lord of the Flies since it was first announced, and other comparisons like Lost and The Leftovers have arisen since. What were your biggest influences?
Lord of the Flies was certainly the thing I thought about most in the writing of the show. I was interested in this question of where we had gotten to as a civilization — I don’t mean just the country I live in, although in this case we are writing about America — and asking whether we could have done better. Lord of the Flies seemed like a good way to address that, particularly if you placed it not among preadolescent boys but among people coming of age. Marc and I originally developed the show before I'd seen The Leftovers, and having seen it, we changed the show somewhat. There was a lot more stuff with the parents in The Society originally, but I thought, "There’s no way I’m going to do that any better than that show did,” and so we don't focus very much on the grief of those left behind. We steered clear of that because of what a beautiful job The Leftovers did with that conversation about grief.
The parents are only reintroduced in the final scene of the season. Would you spend more time with them in a hypothetical second season?
Yes, I think we have the flexibility to go back and see [more of the parents], but I still think you wouldn’t end up feeling any kind of parity between the two sides of the show. When Marc and I first thought about it, it was an even split between the kids and the adults. The show was going back and forth between these two sides, and in combination with Netflix we just decided it was not a good idea for a number of reasons. I think what we ended up with was something new and fresh.
The Society’s teenage characters do a decent job of forming a functioning society, and right up front they’re having smart, frank conversations about democracy, guns and sexual violence. It felt like a reflection of the real ways Generation Z activists are making progress on gun control and other issues. Was that deliberate?
Absolutely. Every conversation that Marc and I had, among ourselves or with Netflix, was a kind of post-Parkland conversation about what this generation of kids is thinking, and how they're interested in remaking the world in some ways. I'm hoping the show speaks to more than just a Gen Z audience, but that parallel is entirely intentional, and I do think these kids do a pretty good job! The Lord of the Flies story is almost invariably a story about how things move toward chaos, and about how human beings are in fact doomed, and if left to our own devices we mess things up and undermine each other and maybe kill each other off. Although the show has the specter of chaos hanging over it, part of it is also potentially optimistic. It’s not out of the question that — having worked through all the kinks and figured out what they mean to each other — this first generation in this new society could actually figure things out. I don't want it to be a given that it’s going to go south, although it might!
Cassandra’s death at the end of episode three is a huge twist, since she’s set up as the show’s protagonist. How did you settle on that development?
That was something that that Marc and I decided very early on, and it was initially driven by the idea that the leader should not feel capable of leading. Although we needed a Cassandra figure to bring them across the border between the familiar world and this new one, so that things didn’t entirely fall apart, we decided it was much more dramatically interesting to have somebody like Allie forced to step up, somebody who isn’t the person who was born to do this. I mean, maybe Allie actually was born to do it, but she doesn’t know it by the end of the season. And then Cassandra’s death also ends up triggering an immediate crisis, which calls a whole bunch of things into question that go to the heart of what the show’s about: What do we do about weapons in a world like this? What constitutes a justice system here? What does it mean to punish people fairly?
The show also explores toxic teenage masculinity in a really chilling way. Before her death, Cassandra openly says she’s worried someone will get raped if they don’t establish some kind of social order — and she clearly has good reason to be concerned.
We thought it was important to have that conversation. Obviously not all of the men in the show represent that, but it is interesting because in theory, a world with pretty strong social constraints might be sufficient to allow men and women to co-exist without threats of violence. I say “might” because obviously it’s not true that we exist free of that in the real world. But in the world of the show, where the normal social rules don’t apply, it becomes incredibly dangerous. That’s just one variation of this question of what happens in a place where some people have more power, or more of an instinct toward domination of one kind or another — sexual or otherwise. I’m hopeful that the show lasts and we’ll get into other layers of that. This season deals a lot with men versus women, and it deals only briefly with race, but I think you can expect that conversation about class and race to keep coming up. All these things need to be re-litigated in a world in which there are no givens. We hope, over time, and if we’re lucky enough to get a season two, to explore all the social contract questions that we take for granted.
The first season doesn’t spend too much time delving into the mystery of what happened — how these kids got to what appears to be a parallel Earth. Do you know what the resolution of that mystery is?
Yes, we have pretty good sense of it. I don't think we know all the details, because we like playing around with it, but we have a pretty good idea of what happened. I hope what we did in the first season is begin to solve it slowly and dig into where are they, how did they get there, why were they taken, and can they get back? They answer some of those things, they’re able to figure out a little bit about where they think they are, and should we be lucky enough to have subsequent seasons, that mystery is going to deepen. Whether you're looking at it from a scientific point of view or mystical point of view, the question of how they get back is a tough one.
Our philosophy was also that this is not Riverdale. It’s not like these kids are home and have a lot of time to investigate a given mystery. They’re in the middle of having to re-create an entire world, and surviving from one day to the next is their principal obligation. Their secondary obligation is to try to figure out what the hell is going on and to try to get home. They don’t have a lot of resources, they’re just kids in the middle of nowhere, so there are lots of things that are virtually unanswerable. We planned that mystery as if this were going to be a long-running series, so the question of “Can they get home?” will run throughout the entire show.
What else would you plan to explore in season two? This season ends with Lexie staging a coup and seizing power away from Allie, which doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily going to go well.
(Laughs) Well, I think it raises a whole bunch of different questions. One thing is that it’s not just Lexie, it's the triumvirate of Lexie, Harry and Campbell, and the fact that those three don’t want all the same things, I think that’s going to be pretty interesting. The idea of power-sharing among three people, none of whom trust anybody. And I think there’s an interesting — and pretty timely — question about what happens if you give people who are entirely unfit for office the chance to run, and they make it! So we have a good sense of what the arc of season two will be.
On a different note, you and Amy Lippman are working on a Party of Five reboot for Freeform, centered on a deportation storyline. How did that timely concept come together?
People had talked to Amy and me for a long time about redoing Party of Five, and we'd never been particularly interested in doing it. Not that we didn't love the show, but there was no desire to go back and do it again. It was only recently, unfortunately, with the changes in the world, that it occurred to us that there was a story here. That we could use the very basic premise of Party of Five — children having to deal with the loss of their parents — in a way that was new and different enough to make it worth spending time on again. I was reading articles about families making plans for life in L.A. without parents, and that’s what triggered it.
The show has some things that are exactly the same — I think people who love the old version will love watching these five kids who have to rely on each other, in exactly this moment when they ought to be independent, and have to ask all the same questions that they did in the original show. But it’s under this very specific other lens. It’s not about grief — not that there isn’t grief involved, but it’s not simply about grief, in that their parents didn’t die. It’s about a different kind of grief, and also this constant engagement in a political and social system that they have to navigate, and about feelings of belonging and being on the outside. It seemed to us to ask a lot of interesting questions and be relevant.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.