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Star-crossed lovers are a staple of young adult fiction, and theirs is a drama typically fueled by black-and-white binaries. He’s a vampire, she’s anemic! She’s a mer-cow, he’s lactose intolerant. She’s allergic to sunlight and he really likes playing outside in the daytime. It’s a genre that works best when two people, clearly infatuated with each other, are being kept apart by something equally clear that they have to overcome.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of Netflix’s new drama The Innocents is that although it’s very much a YA romance, it’s also proudly elusive. The first season of the series, created by Hania Elkington and Simon Duric, is willing to let viewers go multiple episodes without a clue what’s happening and essentially treats its full eight-episode run as the most preliminary of primers to its premise. The pacing is sometimes teasingly effective and sometimes just infuriatingly slow, but I respect its gateway oddness, like The Innocents is preparing a Netflix juvenile demographic for the more substantive, patience-intensive oddness of something like a Sens8 down the road.
Air date: Aug 24, 2018
Explaining the premise without just skipping ahead and filling in information from the second half of the series is not easy.
June McDaniel (Sorcha Groundsell) is nearing her 16th birthday, a milestone her overprotective father (Sam Hazeldine) plans to celebrate by uprooting the family, including agoraphobic brother Ryan (Arthur Hughes), from their rural English home to someplace even more remote in Scotland. See, there’s something unusual about June and her dad is eager to protect her, even if that means keeping her slightly sedated and entirely isolated. What her father doesn’t know is that June has a secret boyfriend, Harry (Percelle Ascott), and Harry has made plans to whisk June off to London. It’s not a bad plan, until Harry and June find out they’re being pursued by two strangers, one of whom claims to have a message from June’s long-absent mother Elena (Laura Birn), and then June inexplicably transforms into a burly man named Steiner (Johannes Haukur Johannesson).
Yes, June transforms into an intense bearded dude, which makes for an uncomfortable first date.
Meanwhile, the story keeps cutting to a distant farm in a gorgeous valley in Norway. It’s called Sanctum, and it’s there that we meet Ben Halvorson (Guy Pearce), some sort of academic doing psychological testing on three women, including June’s mom.
Other than to reveal that June’s shape-shifting isn’t limited to Steiner and that she isn’t the only one with this particular gift or curse, I wouldn’t deign to spoil anything. Series directors Farren Blackburn and Jamie Donoughue treat the shifting with a frugality that, in its better moments, plays as near-elegance. Elaborate special effects are kept to a minimum, generally just a presaging seizure and then an unseen shift, during which the character’s original identity is still seen in reflective surfaces.
Speaking of surfaces, Elkington and Duric like to use the shifting as a metaphor, though usually on a surface level, one that will surely be familiar to any casual fans of the genre. It’s that intersection of adolescence and first love, where growing pains are literal and it isn’t unusual to feel like you’ve woken up as a different person than you were when you went to bed. That’s coupled with falling in love and putting yourself in position to reveal to another soul who you truly are inside, even if you may not be completely sure yet who that is yourself. That’s the level on which The Innocents wants to engage with its central theme, and it does so with reasonable versatility, through June’s terror and confusion at these changes she’s going through without proper warning or explanation and Harry’s utter bafflement at how little he apparently knew his girlfriend and how little he apparently understands women. More provocative questions, those Sens8-style questions of gender fluidity and trans identity, aren’t anywhere near the show’s pay grade, and I had more than a few, “That would be a perfect pivot around which to discuss something a bit meatier” moments accompanied by minor disappointment at the show’s limited aspiration.
The Innocents is going for a younger audience, but the show is going to have to hope that that audience is really into exposition. These eight episodes are pushed forward by Harry and June’s escape and the diverging groups trying to find them, include June’s father and brother, Harry’s police officer mom and representatives from the Sanctum. That means there are occasional escapes, occasional sit-down summits to discuss secrets and occasional narrative resets, put together with a languid dreaminess that makes the most of some breathtaking cinematography, especially in the Norwegian scenes. A show with an eye on efficiency could surely have dispatched with the plot of the first season in a maximum of two episodes, with the writers preferring that June avoid meeting anybody with too many answers too quickly and allowing June and Harry to find their way and their explanations together.
There is a nice and earnest sweetness to June and Harry’s love and to Groundsell and Ascott’s chemistry. For all the time the series has for wheel-spinning, it has no room to lay the foundation for their relationship, either how it started or what they see in each other, and so their compatibility is on an emotional level that the actors have to make work. It’s hard to imagine this show working at all without Groundsell, who holds the screen compellingly and ably covers a lot of ground between fragile childishness and a sense of a more potent adulthood. Ascott is much less dynamic, but he’s convincingly sincere.
Pearce conveys inquisitive authority and brings some name-brand recognition to The Innocents. At times you can see what might have lured him to this role, and at other times you have to figure that he just wanted a few pleasant, low-intensity weeks of Scandinavian holiday. The strange, psychosexual things happening at Sanctum, played with an undefined simmer by Pearce, Birn, Ingunn Beate Oyen and Lise Risom Olsen, are among many elements the show has to underplay to avoid alienating its desired audience. It just happens that the edgiest and most adult performances, including that of Johannesson, Hughes and a great Abigail Hardingham as a woman with some knowledge of June’s condition, are also its best.
If viewers make it through the intentionally opaque first few episodes and stick around through the eighth, the clamoring for a quick renewal will probably be loud. Maybe a second season of The Innocents will take the show to more grown-up places and also turn its shape-shifting into a device to move a story forward and not just a thing to be explained at a deliberate pace. These episodes are a prelude and maybe the ensuing series will have more action and more depth? Yes, I admired the show’s refusal to just lay everything out there immediately and I was curious enough to fuel eight episodes of viewing, but I’m not endlessly patient.
Cast: Sorcha Groundsell, Percelle Ascott, Guy Pearce, Johannes Hauker Johannesson, Laura Birn, Sam Hazeldine, Lise Risom Olsen, Ingunn Beate Oyen, Nadine Marshall, Arthur Hughes
Creators: Hania Elkington and Simon Duric
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)
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