The teenage characters in The Society don’t end up stranded on a deserted island or stuck at a remote outpost, but in a sort of alternate universe where their idyllic Connecticut small town has either been transported or perfectly replicated, down to the last detail. And yet most of the show (at least in its first six episodes) downplays the sci-fi weirdness in favor of interpersonal melodrama and surface-level attempts at political philosophy. As the title implies, these 200 or so teenagers are focused on creating their own new society, setting up rules and committees and tribunals, and only occasionally wondering what happened to the rest of humanity and how they could be reunited with their loved ones.
It makes sense that teenagers might be excessively self-absorbed even when faced with the possible end of the world, but the teenagers in The Society are especially petulant and whiny, and their overwrought arguments about who should be in charge and who’s responsible for basic maintenance tasks are more tedious than gripping. Although Lord of the Flies is a clear influence on the creative team, the situation in the town of West Ham never tips into chaos and unchecked violence, which is understandable for a narrative that needs to sustain over the long term, but it does rob the story of some of its potential intensity and urgency.
Even before the teens are transported to their strange new home, something is clearly not right in West Ham. There’s a mysterious unpleasant smell permeating the town, and local officials are baffled about where it came from and what to do about it. Students at the local high school are packed onto buses for an alleged week-long wilderness field trip while a clean-up crew takes care of the smell, but they never arrive at their destination. Instead, they return to town and are let off the school buses, which drive away, never to be seen again. (What happened to the drivers? No one bothers to follow up on that.)
Conveniently, all the utilities (electricity, gas, running water) are still on, and cell service is active internally in the town, so everyone can communicate via text message and make phone calls to each other. But there’s no way to reach the outside world, and the town itself is now surrounded by seemingly endless forest. At first, the teens treat the new developments like an extended vacation, throwing raging parties with no parents around. It’s not long before everyone realizes that the situation isn’t going to resolve itself, though, and that’s when the conflict starts, as various prominent students jockey for power.
The small group of young people forced to create their own new society in a familiar but unfamiliar new world recalls the set-up for veteran sci-fi drama The 100, and The Society likewise features strong women emerging as the group leaders, often in conflict with duplicitous men. Here, sisters Cassandra (Legion’s Rachel Keller) and Allie (Kathryn Newton) find themselves at the top of the hierarchy, not entirely by choice, and they do their best to maintain order, with mixed results. The main antagonists are a pair of douche-bros who are more interested in using the new reality for selfish ends, but they’re not overt villains, and their agendas aren’t sinister enough to set up a large-scale conflict.
With its supernaturally isolated town and former friends and acquaintances at odds with each other, The Society could be the YA-style version of Under the Dome, but the creators shy away from crazy sci-fi twists and escalating action, at least for now. Smooth-talking alleged psychopath Campbell (Toby Wallace) is the closest the show comes to a villainous mastermind, but most of the warnings about his nearly Hannibal Lecter-level deviousness are just hype, and Wallace plays him as more whiny and entitled than actively evil. Keller and Newton are stuck playing noble sufferers as the sisters who take on town leadership, and the rest of the performances are rather bland. Even more than halfway through the season, it’s still often tough to tell many of the secondary characters apart.
Creator Christopher Keyser also co-created Party of Five, another show about young people fending for themselves, and his sensibility hasn’t changed much by adding the sci-fi setting. Later episodes take on themes of toxic masculinity and female empowerment in blunt but sometimes powerful ways (at one point, the women pull a Lysistrata move to curb violent outbursts in their male peers), but too often the social commentary comes in the form of lengthy speeches, some of them in an actual courtroom setting as the characters attempt to enforce the rule of law.
The Amazing Spider-Man director Marc Webb helms the first couple of episodes and serves as an executive producer, but he doesn’t bring any of the playfulness or sense of style of his movie work to Keyser’s dour script. Even with an episode built around the teens staging an impromptu prom, The Society doesn’t have many lighthearted or upbeat moments. It’s about as much fun as attending a meeting of a high school debate club.
Premiering May 10 on Netflix, The Society stars Kathryn Newton, Alex Fitzalan, Jacques Colimon, Kristine Froseth, Gideon Adlon, Sean Berdy, Toby Wallace, Olivia DeJonge, Jose Julian and Rachel Keller.