'Marvel's Runaways': TV Review
With a 16-character ensemble, Hulu's new Marvel series has to lay a lot of foundation, but it's still a promising start for this comic book dramedy.
One of the narratives in the most recent baseball season was teams over-relying on home runs, sometimes at the expense of manufacturing runs in other ways.
The same is true in television, where emerging networks are becoming increasingly obsessed with finding the next Game of Thrones, as if hitting a programming home run were as simple as saying, "Let's stop making little successes and let's start making huge successes."
With The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu hit a home run. Through a unique combination of timing and excellence, the Margaret Atwood adaptation won the drama series Emmy, became a pop culture touchstone and succeeded in every visible metric, elevating a Hulu Originals brand that had been mostly associated with dramas that probably didn't rise to expectations and [well-regarded] niche comedies.
Despite a creative team of sluggers — Marvel Studios plus creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage — Hulu's new drama Runaways (or Marvel's Runaways, if you want to be cumbersome) is not a home run, but through the four episodes sent to critics, it still has potential to be the kind of solid extra base hit a growing programming portfolio needs. If anything, I think Schwartz's and Savage's ambitions for Runaways may limit its ability to be an immediate smash hit, but could pay long-term dividends across the 10-episode first season, which launches Nov. 21.
Based on the Marvel comic series created by Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona, Runaways focuses on a group of six fabulously rich high school kids — nerd Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), brooding goth Nico (Lyrica Okano), seemingly perfect Karolina (Virginia Gardner), purple-haired agitator Gert (Ariela Barer), overtly smart jock Chase (Gregg Sulkin) and baby of the group Molly (Allegra Acosta) — who used to be friends-of-convenience because their parents were part of a charity group called the Pride. Now estranged by the vagaries of high school popularity, these six are thrust together again when they witness a potentially sacrificial ritual and discover that Pride may be a cover for something much more nefarious. It's a smooth and familiar allegory: Every teen inevitably begins to distrust their parents, but what if you discovered your parents might be truly evil?
In the comic, the focus is largely on the kids and it's accepted in short order that Pride is a group of varied supervillains, including witches, aliens and dimension-travelers. Some of the parents gifts, magical and extra-terrestrial in nature, are imparted to their kids and in the early TV episodes, a couple of the Runaways teens may have comparable powers, that are being slowly unfolded as they investigate Pride.
Schwartz and Savage made the decision to entirely scrap the comic's Pride backstory in favor of a more layered depiction of the parents, in which they're simultaneously pillars of the Los Angeles social and business community — lawyers, bioengineers, real estate moguls, investors — and tied in some way to a religious group called the Church of Gibborim, the latest TV cult that for legal purposes definitely isn't based on Scientology, but for practical purposes is totally based on Scientology.
The advantage of this choice is immediate, because it means that in addition to a younger cast of relative unknowns, Runaways is able to cast a group of much more recognizable older actors as parents, including Annie Wersching as Karolina's cult matriarch mom, Kip Pardue as Karolina's washed-up actor father, James Marsters as Chase's abusive genius dad and Kevin Weisman as Gert's awkward and brilliant pops (plus Ryan Sands, Angel Parker, Brittany Ishibashi, Brigid Brannagh, James Yaegashi and Ever Carradine as parents). The ability to take properties that might have been ghettoized as "teen TV" and make them into multigenerational stories has always been a Schwartz/Savage hallmark, and there's no question that the parents in the Runaways TV show are much more nuanced characters much more immediately than they are in the comic. Spending more time with the parents helps ground the kids more and it helps situate these families within the Los Angeles community, which is utilized as a varied backdrop.
But the disadvantage of the choice is not insignificant. Runaways, which should move at a breakneck pace, is instead methodical and at times intentionally repetitive. The first episode builds to a shocking moment and then, just as you're ready to plow ahead with the story, the second episode repeats the pilot from the perspective of the parents. It's very smart that Hulu is premiering the first three episodes together on Nov. 21, because those episodes are all entertaining enough to keep you watching, but that entertainment is a lot of teenage gumshoe work and mystery-building and they don't always feel like the show you can imagine Runaways wanting to be. In fact, by the fourth episode the show hasn't even gotten around to justifying its title.
There are also 16 main characters now (Molly was adopted by Gert's parents, if the math is confusing) and maybe that's why after four episodes, I'm not sure if there's a clear breakout performance or character. Conversely, and maybe more important, there's no sore-thumb bad performance. There are just so many people to service that the dialogue in Runaways is more utilitarian than sparkling and clever, making this maybe the only time that putting a story through the Schwartz/Savage prism makes it less quippy and reference-driven. If there's a young standout, it's probably Barer, wielding social justice warrior slogans like weapons and looking like no particular hero we've seen before on TV. The grown-ups are all fine, with Weisman adding his trademark welcome geekiness, Wersching conveying an inscrutable intensity and Pardue making the target audience feel old as a sad-sack dad. Basically, you have some affection for a lot of characters, rather than a lot of affection for a few characters.
Led by early director Brett Morgen and Roxann Dawson, the first four episodes are well-realized in the ways that count, beyond the uniformly proficient character introductions. There's a California opulence that conjures associations with Schwartz's The O.C. The special effects, kept somewhat more limited than fans of the comic are likely to be expecting, are decent. And, not to spoil anything but because it's important for comic book fans, Old Lace is introduced about as capably as one could hope for.
Networks and streaming services want a Game of Thrones because they need to differentiate themselves and Runaways is not that kind of home run. What Runaways has going for it is being better than the fall's other new Marvel shows in ABC's unbearable Inhumans and Fox's promising-but-muddled The Gifted. If everybody's got to have a superhero family show at least it looks like Hulu has a good one, and that's differentiation, too.
Cast: Rhenzy Feliz, Lyrica Okano, Virginia Gardner, Ariela Barer, Gregg Sulkin, Allegra Acosta, Annie Wersching, Ryan Sands, Angel Parker, Ever Carradine, James Marsters, Kevin Weisman, Brigid Brannah, James Yaegashi, Brittany Ishibashi, Kip Pardue, and Julian McMahon
Creators: Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage
First three episodes premiere on Tuesday, Nov. 21, on Hulu