'The Society': TV Review

The kids are not alright, but the show is.
5/10/2019

Netflix's high school 'Lord of the Flies' riff from 'Party of Five' co-creator Christopher Keyser isn't always as fresh or fluid as it thinks it is, but has some big ideas and moves well.

When it comes to the YA genre, it's tough to find a template more endlessly repeatable than Lord of the Flies: Young people in isolation, without grown-ups and the structures they provide and enforce, have to recreate society and, despite utopian aspirations, invariably discover that our myriad systemic flaws are rooted in universal human flaws and primal instincts. It's the engine that drives too many TV, movie and literary franchises to count, with The Maze Runner, The CW's The 100, Netflix's The Rain and Emmy Laybourne's Monument 14 books among recent entries.

The Lord of the Flies formula is seminal enough that the characters in Netflix's new YA series The Society probably ought to be able to reference it directly. Over the course of the 10 episodes premiering on Friday, they're constantly nodding to the series' other inspirations, including Peter Pan, Thoreau's Walden and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Part of the problem with The Society is the sense that the show's creators think they're doing something better than a mere YA drama. The Society is not especially fresh, and it's clumsy and clunky in a number of frustrating ways, but it's also occasionally thoughtful and perceptive and, as it progresses, it builds moral quandaries and tension well. Throw in a flawed-but-solid cast and by the end of the season, I was ready for more.

The Society hails from Party of Five co-creator Christopher Keyser, a reminder that that beloved Fox drama had Lord of the Flies in its DNA, as well. Several busloads of high school students from a comfortable Connecticut town set off for an extended camping trip — it's better not to question any of the logistics of what is presented as an oddly long, entirely unchaperoned journey — only to be forced back home by a storm. They're dropped off in the town square and… everybody is gone, no parents or adults of any kind. Oh, and when they try to leave again, they discover that the town is suddenly surrounded by miles of uncharted forest.

There are myriad questions, big and small: Where are they? Where did everybody else go? Where should they live? How much food is available? Why can they make no contact with the outside world and yet water, electricity and cellphone signals remain intact? Who's in charge?

The first episode or two of The Society find our main characters dealing with the initial rush of an adult-free world, which mostly means partying and sex. It isn't long before they confront the need for order, with or without "law," and in the event of tragedy and misbehavior, the need to maintain justice.

There's Yale-bound student council president Cassandra (Rachel Keller), who falls into leadership easily, and sister Allie (Kathryn Newton), resigned to a life in Cassandra's shadow. There's Harry (Alex Fitzalan), the most spoiled rich kid in a town of spoiled rich kids, and his girlfriend Kelly (Kristine Froseth). There's Sam (Sean Berdy); he's deaf and gay. There's Becca (Gideon Adlon); she's got a secret. There's Helena (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who loves church, and Grizz (Jack Mulhern) and Luke (Alex MacNicoll), who love football. Will (Jacques Colimon) is relatively poor and has a crush on Allie. Gordie (Jose Julian), is relatively nerdy and has a crush on Cassandra. There's Elle (Olivia DeJonge), a fragile outsider who attracts the attention of Sam's brother Campbell (Toby Wallace), whom you'll hate instantly even before the show gives you copious reasons to hate him more.

This must have been a town populated primarily by students who spent between five or 10 years modeling before going back to finish high school in their mid-20s. Even after watching 10 episodes, I'm still not convinced that it isn't going to be a part of the show's big twist that basically none of the actors are believable as the age they're supposed to be playing.

I can't guess much more about the big twist because — and I'm thankful for this, but other viewers will be infuriated — The Society is only periodically driven by the mechanics behind the show's mythology. Instead, its primary concentration is on power, between the people thinking of the collective good and people thinking of individual good, between gendered ideas of female leadership and male leadership, between carrot and stick versions of social control. The Society has a worthy pragmatism when it comes to our political systems and how it wants to discuss nebulous concepts of socialism, fascism and democracy and the ease with which benevolent aspirations can go sour. This is built into the Lord of the Flies template and features shades of the ABC Afterschool Special classic The Wave, which Keyser is surely aware of, even if his target audience isn't.

And for that target audience, Keyser and his team of writers (all women after the pilot, I believe) make sure to provide emotional grounding with several burgeoning romances and make-work projects like impromptu prom, Thanksgiving and movie nights. And while not quite as ruthless as The 100, which made its bones by gleefully killing off main characters with impunity, The Society maintains suspense with early casualties and threats of violence that suggest wherever these kids are, it's an Anything Can Happen zone.

A lot of the performance heavy-lifting in the first couple episodes is done by Keller, conveying warmth and wisdom if not even vaguely believable as a high school senior, and Newton, heartbreakingly open and versatile at tracing the show's most varied character arc. As the series-opening production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern warns you, though, the most interesting and important characters are sometimes the ones who start the tale in the background. I was surprised how invested I became in the relationship between Bordizzo's Helena and MacNicoll's Luke, carried by the strength of both performances. Berdy confirms that his solid Switched at Birth work wasn't a fluke. And you can tell from the early episodes that pilot director Marc Webb and subsequent helmers (like the writers, mostly women) realized when you put Froseth in close-up, she's able to deliver a lot of yearning ambiguity without dialogue.

And sometimes the dialogue here is just painful, and the worst of it is given to the second- and third-tier characters, like the wooden villain whose declaration "I'm gonna kill you and then you'll be dead!" set me off on 15 minutes of laughter. The show handles its female characters far better than the men, and there's a definite critique about male entitlement and toxic masculinity that the show wants to do, but can't figure out how to do without being arch and obvious. It's rather astonishing how Wallace's villainous Campbell becomes less nuanced and more cartoonish as the series progresses.

There are all sorts of little things that The Society does badly beyond its predictable inability to dimensionalize 40 lesser (and occasionally more important) parts of the ensemble. Wherever it was filmed, this is an example of a show in which location is an afterthought and definitely not a main character, cheating the show of context and geography. There are gaps in how the show handles or ignores its various rules and complications, the passing of time is scattershot and the connecting of scenes is sometimes shoddy, as if large chunks of explanation or logic were cut for time, which shouldn't happen in a series that pushes an hour with each episode.

The first season of The Society actually feels like it could have been expanded to 13 episodes, so if it irks, at least it never lags. Not the most innovative or boundary-breaking take on the Lord of the Flies architecture, The Society does justice to much of its potential and there's an audience out there, not exclusively in that young adult demo, that will devour it.

Cast: Rachel Keller, Kathryn Newton, Alex Fitzalan, Kristine Froseth, Jacques Colimon, Sean Berdy, Toby Wallace, Gideon Adlon, Olivia DeJonge, Alex MacNicoll, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Jose Julian, Salena Qureshi, Jack Mulhern, Grace Victoria Cox
Creator: Christopher Keyser
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)