The Netflix teen drama has almost become a genre in and of itself. Between offerings such as “On My Block,” “Sex Education,” “13 Reasons Why,” and syndicated CW staples like “Riverdale,” the streaming network has found a solid niche in exploring the everyday lives of teenagers, in all their flailing, moody glory.
“The Society,” Netflix’s compelling new drama from “Party of Five” co-creator Christopher Keyser, takes a grab bag of teen tropes and mixes it with “Lord of the Flies” and a vague dose of supernatural intrigue for good measure. Its premise even manages to sidestep the question of what to do with the parents, a typical teen show consideration that some shows (like “Riverdale”) answer by folding the older generation into the action just as much as their scheming kids. “The Society,” by contrast, banishes the adults altogether — and indeed, anyone but the central teens, period.
At first, the show seems like a typical high school drama about the popular kids versus the burnouts versus the overachievers. But when a field trip drops the senior class back in an abandoned facsimile of the town they just left, with no way out or in, the teens of West Ham have to figure out how to live together without imploding under pressure. And after the requisite initial panic of apocalypse partying, both the characters and the series, to their credit, take that question incredibly seriously. (If you don’t trust me, trust the show’s reliance on dramatic handheld cameras.) Think “The 100,” but instead of juvenile delinquents learning how to function as a community, it’s wary rich kids flailing without their Ivy League plans.
For a while, the existing social order remains intact. Class president Cassandra (Rachel Keller, “Legion”) tries to take the lead amongst the panic, setting off a chain of insecurities from her little sister Allie (Kathryn Newton, “Big Little Lies”) and popular pretty boy Harry (Alex Fitzalan). The jocks, united in their letterman jackets, band together as they’re so used to doing. Friendly nerds like Gordie (José Julián), Becca (Gideon Adlon, “Blockers”), and Sam (Sean Berdy) try to unpack the bizarre logistics of their situation. Social outcasts Campbell (Toby Wallace) and Elle (Olivia DeJonge) gravitate towards each other, for wont of better options. Despite — or maybe thanks to — their best efforts, their attempts to make a revolutionary new order end up looking an awful lot like the more rigid, heteronormative one in which they all grew up.
Even as much as “The Society” spins its wheels — and with 10 episodes clocking in at a solid hour each encompassing a sprawling cast, it inevitably does — there just aren’t many other teen shows that routinely debate the advantages of capitalism versus socialism or democracy versus dictatorship. With the exception of a time jump deeper into the season, “The Society” rarely takes shortcuts while the teens figure out what it means to build a community from the ground up, and what the dynamics of their old world mean in this new one.
Much of the series’ best material comes when the characters have to confront their privilege or lack thereof. Harry, who used to have everything, struggles to adjust to sharing his assets. Will (Jacques Colimon), a poorer orphan, embraces the opportunity to found a more equitable order. And some of the most interesting and revealing moments come from the reaction to Cassandra’s aggressively pragmatic solutions from all the disgruntled boys who resent her power and influence over their girlfriends. To them, the biggest threat isn’t whatever force brought them to this New Ham (a question the show entertains but isn’t wholly consumed by), but a smart girl with the audacity to tell them what to do. More than anything else on the show, the exploration of this dynamic (which I like to call “the Elizabeth Warren paradox”) feels both urgent and timely.
All of this is wholly worthy and fascinating for a show like this to dive into. But after I watched all of “The Society” within 48 hours — which, to Netflix’s inevitable relief, is a relatively easy thing to do — I wasn’t nearly as invested in its story as I should’ve been. Few of the characters register as particularly compelling beyond their loglines; not even the aforementioned time jump, usually a storytelling device meant to shake things up, does all that much to meaningfully shift anyone’s particular arc. Take the jocks, who tend to blend into one dim bro. Many of the female characters — with the exceptions of Allie, Cassandra, and steadfast Christian Helena (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) — feel interchangeable. That just shouldn’t be the case after a few episodes, let alone ten solid hours of content that hinge on these particular characters being riveting enough to stand all on their own.
“The Society” premieres Friday, May 10 on Netflix.