'Impulse': TV Review

Expect more emotional trauma than exciting teleporting.
6/6/2018

YouTube Red's new series is part of the 'Jumper' family, but it's driven by a very strong lead performance from Maddie Hasson that makes it more of a character drama about sexual assault than a YA thriller.

Directed by Doug Liman, the pilot for YouTube Red's Impulse begins with a bang. Two men, one played by Keegan-Michael Key, are engaged in a full-on teleportation brawl, exchanging punches as they shift between a remote iceberg and a busy subway train full of confused passengers. It's a thrilling spectacle.

Over the rest of the 10-episode first season of the show, there is no scene of comparable action or scope, and Key's role in the series is negligible. 

And if you're curious why, as I initially was, despite the presence of Liman and source material from Steven Gould, YouTube Red isn't selling Impulse on its ties to the Jumper book and movie brand, know that the series' quantity of teleporting fun is minimal and its fidelity to Gould's novel is close to nonexistent.

Having dispatched and dismissed the major selling points for Impulse, it's possible to really respect the show for what it actually is, namely a surprisingly effective exploration of a young woman dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, while at the same time learning very little about her newfound ability to travel through space in moments of extreme emotion. It's often quite solid and Maddie Hasson effectively leads a fine ensemble, but Impulse really isn't the show you might be expecting.

Hasson plays Henrietta "Henry" Coles, a vagabond teen who struggles to make friends and connections because her mother (Missi Pyle) keeps moving from one boyfriend and town to the next. Henry's latest home is somewhere in upstate New York and comes with a popular, dismissive new pseudo stepsister (Sarah Desjardins) and the challenges of being unable to drive due to several recent and unexplained seizures.

A conflict with a teacher in class leads to Henry's latest seizure and to attention from Townes (Daniel Maslany), who's on the autism spectrum and a bit of an outcast himself, when he notices that Henry's condition also causes objects around her to move. That's nothing, though, compared to what happens when basketball star Clay (Tanner Stine) ignores Henry's boundaries and vocal protestations after some initially benign making-out. Before she knows what happened, Henry is back in the safety of her bedroom and Clay's life is changed forever.

Using the sexual assault of a young protagonist as a character catalyst can be effective and fertile instigation for drama — see Veronica Mars or Jessica Jones — but it can also be exploitive when ramifications and emotional scarring are ignored to push the narrative forward. Impulse showrunner Lauren LeFranc is admirably determined not to let the series fall into that second category.

What the show does best is deal with consent and the lingering trauma a sexual assault can cause a victim. It's a multi-episode process that's almost always in the foreground as Henry faces the constant presence of her attacker; suffers self-doubt as her story is questioned; and shies away from other intimacies in her life, already a problem for the new girl in school and for one of those sci-fi characters whose burgeoning adolescence and nascent powers are intermingled.

Hasson's balance of tough-girl exterior and inner fragility is exceptional. There's a volatile minutelong uncut shot of the young actress in the second episode that sold me completely on the performance and her ability to carry the series. Episodes are preceded by sexual violence content warnings and end with hotline callouts to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. LeFranc and the writers, plus a team of post-Liman directors dominated by women, including Helen Shaver, Alex Kalymnios and Cherien Dabis, do right by this sensitive, difficult side of the story.

It isn't that the Impulse team does poorly with the "jumper" side of the story, but their interest in it wanes. There's a very strong feeling that the pilot, from Liman and writer Jeffrey Lieber, set a template on all levels that LeFranc and perhaps YouTube Red on a budgetary level weren't interested in following. While the jumping and special effects in the pilot aren't sustained, the changes aren't all negative and don't all represent a reduction.

The performances by Desjardin; Maslany (Tatiana's brother); and David James Elliott, as the father of Henry's attacker and a local automotive kingpin, are all totally overhauled as characterizations go from one-dimensional to much more nuanced. The series badly needs the comic touches Desjardin and Maslany provide in their finer moments.

There's a "Let's get far away from the pilot" undercurrent that leads to several rushed anticlimaxes in the supernatural storyline, which sometimes amounts to little more than Callum Keith Rennie lurking in the background as what we assume is a bad guy because if you shoot in Canada, a villainous performance by Callum Keith Rennie is provided automatically like a tax credit.

Henry's understanding of her power is being laid as an interesting foundation for future seasons, but I accused Freeform's new drama Cloak & Dagger of slow progress in its superhero narrative and that show is positively steaming along compared to Impulse. Much too much of what drives the first season comes from a mostly ludicrous plotline involving Elliott's character and a Mennonite-run opioid empire that recalls the way the first season of Bates Motel was about small-town Oregon marijuana trade more than Norman Bates' introduction to motel maintenance.

The drug story, probably developed with confidence that YouTube Red's core audience didn't watch the far more outrageous take on similar material in Cinemax's Banshee, at least offers another reason for Henry to feel guilt and remorse, and another tense situation to highlight how good Hasson is. It's weakly plotted, but appropriate for a show that wants to make you think it's a YA action-franchise starter, when it's really an interesting and somber character study with a heroine who, very rarely, teleports.

Cast: Maddie Hasson, Missi Pyle, Sarah Desjardin, Enuka Okuma, David James Elliott, Daniel Maslany, Tanner Stine, Craig Arnold
Creator: Developed by Jeffrey Lieber from the book by Steven Gould
Showrunner: Lauren LeFranc
Premieres: Wednesday (YouTube Red)

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