The Boys is a very specific show for people with very specific taste. Those familiar with the Garth Ennis comic on which it is based might expect the show to be similarly edgy for edginess' sake. Casual and brutal violence, people treated as masturbatory fantasies, and a complete disregard for humanity are all played as darkly comedic in the comic; the only overarching point of The Boys is that every ideal you've bought into and every person you've admired is a lie.
When the comic debuted in 2006 it was hailed as the second coming (and an actually fun version) of Watchmen. In 2019, the adaptation could have felt wildly outdated in a world that already delivers causal and brutal violence for laughs. But producers Seth Rogen and Eric Kripke take the edgelord premise -- a group of vigilantes with personal scores to settle is funded by the CIA to stop superhero crimes -- and modernizes it into something not just watchable, but worth bingeing.
For those of you who are worried about the show being neutered, it's not. In the first few episodes (the full first season was screened for critics) alone, we see an explosive go off inside a superhero's rectum, a character shapeshift during a sexual encounter to blackmail a US senator, and Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) yell the C-word many, many times.
For those of you who are thinking to yourself, why would I watch entertainment made solely for 13-year-old boys who are discovering disillusionment for the first time? Because the show strays quite far from its source material and zeroes in on the types of connections that can pull people through a world that seems hopeless.
The Boys kicks off in a different place than the comic. The Boys -- the vigilantes looking to expose the superheroes for who they truly are -- have already united, failed to take down corrupted superheroes, and disbanded after their leader's grandchildren were burned to death. Only Billy holds onto the idea that the cost of going after the supes is worth it. Seeking vengeance for his wife -- who went missing eight years ago after an encounter with Homelander (Anthony Starr), the greatest hero on earth -- Billy finds an accomplice in Hughie (Jack Quaid), a normal dude who recently lost his girlfriend due to a super-speedster literally running right through her. Hughie, driven into a fit of rage when the corrupt megacorporation that manages the speedster offers him $45k in exchange for a signed NDA, decides he's gonna take his shot at vengeance with Billy. But as the series unfolds, and Billy attempts to haphazardly rebuild his team, Hughie begins to realize how insane Billy's quest really is. Billy's former teammates curse his name, and for good reason.
While the Boys are busy stumbling upon on a conspiracy that'll blow the supers' legacy to hell if exposed, the Seven (this universe's Avengers or Justice League) adds a new member, Starlight. Annie January (Erin Moriarty) isn't just a powered-up, small-town girl determined to make a difference; she grew up idolizing the Seven and is crushed to find out who her heroes really are: sexual harassers, drug addicts, murderers, sociopaths. The list of charges is endless, and much like Hughie, Annie isn't sure what she believes in anymore.
By chance, the two meet on a park bench and pull the series back from becoming an emotionally empty set piece. Their connection isn't exactly pure; once Hughie realizes who she is, he uses Annie to get closer to killing A-Train (Jessie Usher), the superhero who accidentally killed his girlfriend. But unexpectedly, that tentative spark reminds Hughie and Annie not just of who they used to be, but who they want to be.
What the show does brilliantly is fan that spark. Not just between Annie and Hughie, but between surprising combinations of characters. Frenchie (Tomer Kapon) and Mother's Milk (Laz Alonso), the two Boys most likely to kill each other, find mutual respect because they both know what it is like to be changed by love. Hughie finds the resolve to kill after he sees a killer he doesn't mind becoming in Frenchie. Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) admits to Annie that she's not the hero or person she once was. Instead of eight hours of rote nihilism, The Boys serves up a well-paced, tightly plotted, explosive action-thriller with seeds of hope in its heart.
That's not to say it's a perfect show. There are parts of the source material that can't quite be avoided, parts that haven't aged well from the comics. The Female, for example, is a beautiful, lethally violent Asian woman who is mute due to being forcibly injected with a compound that gave her powers. Karen Fukuhara does far more with this stereotypical character than you'd think, especially considering she doesn't have a speaking role. But also, the writers deftly counter the expected where they can by giving Fukuhara quiet, domestic scenes to play with and writing in a storyline for another character about consent where the abusers don't get away with their crimes.
Most of The Boys' inherent issues are well balanced in this way. The show never shies away from the ugliness in the world and what people are really capable of doing to each other. But it also never gives up on the idea that there is meaning to be found in life, that there are people who will make you want to change for the better. With brilliant casting, responsible writing, and frenetic energy, it's unsurprising that Amazon has renewed it for a second season. It's a bandwagon well worth jumping on
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
The Boys premieres Friday, July 26 on Amazon Prime.