“Teenage Bounty Hunters,” which launched last week on Netflix, is a series set in a broadly satirized private high school environment, in which sheltered, Type A young people with a knack for rivalrousness and secrecy end up enmeshed in heightened drama.
In other words, it’s like “The Politician” — except good.
The new series, which has been perched in Netflix’s top-ten most-watched column in recent days, bears similarities in situation and in vervy energy to Ryan Murphy’s drama, which launched last year to a muted reception. The difference between the two shows may suggest a smart path for Netflix to continue walking down: Working on crafting purposefully small shows rather than reverse-engineering a zeitgeist hit through famous names.
“Teenage Bounty Hunters” features no major stars, at least not yet: Maddie Phillips and Anjelica Bette Fellini play fraternal twins who accidentally find themselves tracking and catching fugitives when not attending classes at their uptight Christian academy in Georgia. The pair’s spiky chemistry — Phillips’s Sterling Wesley an overachiever, Fellini’s Blair Wesley more committed to remaining free from commitments — shines throughout the season, with the pair branding together and, at times, fracturing as they figure out how to skip trace and, more urgently, how to come into themselves as adults.
All of this takes place against a goofily heightened backdrop that only emphasizes the reality of Sterling and Blair’s bond. The show is called “Teenage Bounty Hunters,” after all, but beyond that surreality, there’s the fact that the pair’s mentor, Bowser (Kadeem Hardison), operates out of a yogurt shop, or that the girls’ school operates with the sort of rigorous obsession with tradition and propriety that’s easily and delightfully punctured. The show is produced by Jenji Kohan, but creator Kathleen Jordan (previously behind the Lifetime series “American Princess”) brings to it a sense of throw-it-all-it-the-screen brio, and a crowdpleasing desire to bring the audience in on the joke.
Contrast this, again, with “The Politician,” set in a similarly wacky comic universe, and similarly concerned with a character’s coming into themself defined by and against constrictive social norms. That show’s awareness of its own pedigree came across in a sort of ungenerosity to the viewer, a withholding of real jokes or of any moment of genuine emotion. It was a show about a sociopath whose refusal to try to engage the viewer came to feel inhuman; if nothing else, one got the sense that Ben Platt and Gwyneth Paltrow believed they were doing the viewer a favor by appearing in it.
A show falling flat in precisely that way — being so larded with prestige expectations that its own sense of itself grows top-heavy — is, perhaps, a hazard of putting together shows with talent so top-flight that they can be presumed to be entertaining no matter what they do. “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is not perfect television, but it’s infused with the sort of small-scale, needle-sharp sensibility that can’t be achieved by committee, nor, really, by anyone fearful of falling flat. The show’s lower-budget pleasures feel right-sized for an afternoon of streaming. And, though a show like this is a part of Netflix’s mission that gets far fewer headlines than the A-list talent on its service, it also represents something likely much more valuable, and more sustainable, than simply looping in a superstar. Some star talent is nurtured, not simply bought, and Jordan and her leads may well be on their way.