In its opening episodes, “Marvel’s Runaways” sketches out its story cleanly and with slick energy. The other three episodes sent for review are more or less efficient as well. But it’s perhaps appropriate that a drama about teens displays something of an identity crisis.
“Runaways” is based on a Marvel comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, and Vaughan in particular has an extraordinary ability to make you care about the characters in his graphic novels, even when the stories drag or when the people in them act like blockheads. And when “The O.C.” was firing on all cylinders in its early seasons, Josh Schwartz, who adapted “Runaways” with fellow executive producer Stephanie Savage, imbued the self-aware soap with emotional dilemmas and personal crises worth following, all while keeping the well-appointed proceedings moving at a brisk clip.
“Runaways’” energy level isn’t a problem, at least in the opening installments. But as the season heads into its middle section, meaningful clues about what many of the core characters are actually doing are few and far between. At one point in the fourth episode, one of the adult characters involved in a nefarious but vague intrigue says, “We’re almost there.” Where? What is it they’re actually aiming at, and why have they done what they’ve done? All in all, “Runaways” drops its plot breadcrumbs too sparingly, and thus the series lacks a narrative core around which it can reliably revolve.
That wouldn’t be a problem if some of the characters were more textured and compelling, but “Runaways” has so many people in its cast that no one personal journey rises above the rest. The cast is generally quite good, especially Rhenzy Feliz as the son of a rich couple who begins to suspect his parents’ involvement in strange doings. Lyrica Okano is similarly appealing as his grief-stricken, sarcastic friend, who suspects her equally wealthy family is involved in the same dubious activities. James Marsters of “Buffy” is cast against type — not as a witty bad boy, but as an abusive tech billionaire. But the writing for him and other adults lacks heft and dimension, and thus it’s hard not to feel that the actor is being misused, at least in the first four episodes.
“Runaways” sets forth reasonable versions of a few different TV staples: a teen soap about conflicted rich kids; a night-time serial about devious, attractive adults whose wealth is opulently displayed (each kitchen is nicer than the last); a genre-tinged drama about murderous activity amongst shadowy acolytes; along with a couple of superhero origin stories thrown into the mix. There’s an upbeat religious group that verges on being a cult, and it of course has some dark secrets it’s hiding. As if all that wasn’t enough, “Runaways” also boasts a sub-plot that brings “Jurassic Park” to mind.
Its a slightly overstuffed melange of TV categories, and it’s fine that the show doesn’t necessarily choose one genre. But its melding processes would work better if it all had something flashier or more emotionally weighty at its center. An unexpected death in the past has brought many of the characters to a difficult place, and the cast handles those moments well. But a little more sass or humor would have helped divert the viewer from all the plot machinery. There are well-timed asides, but “Runaways” notably lacks the irreverence of some of Schwartz’s previous work, especially the zippy “Chuck.”
Ultimately, “Runaways” seems a little too tentative for its own good — which is weird, given that the drama is about wielding power, for both good and ill.
Drama; 10 episodes (4 reviewed); Hulu; 3 episodes debut Tues., Nov. 21, weekly episodes thereafter. 60 min.
Cast, Rhenzy Feliz, Ariela Barer, Lyrica Okano, James Marsters, Kevin Weisman, Brigid Brannah, Gregg Sulkin, Virginia Gardner, Allegra Acosta, Annie Wersching, Ryan Sands, Angel Parker, Ever Carradine, James Yaegashi, Brittany Ishibashi, Kip Pardue, Julian McMahon.
Executive producers, Josh Schwartz, Stephanie Savage, Jeph Loeb, Brett Morgen, Alan Fine, Joe Queseda, Stan Lee, Karim Zreik, Jim Chory.