As a former teenager who spent his formative years inside playing Nintendo, I have a soft spot for television in which teens give the middle finger to their parents and actually go out and do something dangerous with their lives. The Innocents is, in its heart, a teen romance following two almost-able-to-voters who ditch their rough upbringings for life on the road together. We've seen it before, but we also have to admit that it never gets old: Love rules with these two runaways, as they come of age with parents and others hot on their trail and nothing but their confusing hormones to lead the way.
Oh and one more thing, the girl is a shapeshifter.
That may be the hook, but the sturdy spine of The Innocents is the exhilarating and scary freedom of going all in on forbidden teenage love, and with a backdrop of English countryside and Norwegian fjords, it becomes something magical and deserves to make The Innocents one of Netflix's surprise hits of the year. It's hard to think of a show in recent years that has beautifully captured the dumb decisions we've done for first loves and made it make sense. Yet here I am rooting for these two lovesick children -- brought to life earnestly by exceptional unknown leads Sorcha Groundsell and Percelle Ascott, who you'd swear were asking each other to prom IRL -- as they stupidly buy a used car and go whoknowswhere in England with no plan or money.
Groundsell plays June, a humongous-eyed doe who runs off with her charismatic boyfriend Harry (Ascott, about to breakout) to skip out on June's controlling father and Harry's difficult life, which includes a dad in a near-catatonic state. (Nothing is coincidental in The Innocents and we see exactly why both men were that way.) Soon, June discovers she can shift her shape into other bodies -- but she doesn't know how or why -- and things freak the f--- out from there.
There's a second storyline happening concurrently that features the series' only recognizable name; Guy Pearce plays a scientist conducting questionable experiments on a group of very Scandinavian-looking women -- one of them June's mum -- in some sort of secluded retreat in Norway. (Whiffs of The OA abound, but in a MUCH more comprehendible way.) Here, especially in the series' first scene, you'll get most of your "What the heck is going on here?" feelings that are frequent in The Innocents as the show builds out its mythology, but pretty much all your questions will be answered to mostly satisfying degrees by the end of the eight-episode first season, and there's plenty left to discuss for a second season that should be bigger in every way if Netflix opts to move forward. And given the season's ending, it had better.
But my favorite part of The Innocents may be its tone. New showrunners Hania Elkington and Simon Duric bring a lot of Scandinavian mood to The Innocents, which means helicopter shots of lots of trees, open fields and not a lot of sun -- I don't know if the sun is ever out in this show, come to think of it -- which gives it an almost dour feeling that mirrors the threats against Harry and June. June's eyes and Harry's smile are the only light in the show. Moving music cues are provided by Scandinavian artists who prefer an acoustic guitar or piano to droppin' dat bass and auto tune, further pulling you into the world that's been trimmed down to its most natural. It's gorgeous, really. Elkington and Duric also show they're not constantly rained upon, though, in electric club scenes and adventurous episodes when the show moves to London in the middle of the season.
That all helps alleviate some rookie errors with pacing and plotting, as The Innocents doesn't quite fill its almost eight hours with enough story and hits a few snags. Hence the pure June finds herself at a depraved club for drugs and sex (trope alert!) in one unnecessary bit during a sag in the middle episodes. Characters will also sometimes engage in move-the-plot-forward behavior, just because. As a young woman caught between the love of her life and finding the truth about herself, June is particularly susceptible to this kind of action. But there's nothing worth quitting the show over.
OK sure, but you all want to watch for the shapeshifting, and The Innocents pulls it off well under the less-is-more mantra. June isn't jumping into any body she can get her hands on, so when the shifts do happen there are major consequences and immediate issues. The actual transformations aren't accompanied by dazzling special effects, but with cool mirror tricks and convincing acting as actors -- many of whom play bit parts -- are tasked with playing a frightened 15-year-old girl. And a shout out to Ascott, who treats them all like the love of his life even if they're 6'4" bearded men.
There's also some restraint used in the metaphors for shapeshifting, which has in the past been an obvious allegory for puberty. Movies and shows like Teen Wolf, Ginger Snaps and Hemlock Grove used lycanthropy to compare morphing into a furry, man-eating monster to getting hair down there. But The Innocents, at least in Season 1, puts shapeshifting and these new teen urges that Harry and June feel on parallel paths rather than intersecting them. Instead, it infrequently touches on the more interesting idea of identity and the importance (or unimportance) of outward appearance, which is a fancy way of asking how freaked out should Harry be when his girlfriend turns into a big brute or *gulp* another young woman? Is she still June? Still, Season 1 barely grazes these ideas as it's more focused on June's shock at her own power, opening the door for a deeper examination of shapeshifting in Season 2.
As enticing as the shapeshifting is, it's the simplicity of June and Harry's authentic love for each other that makes The Innocents so dreamy. With Groundsell and Ascott's performances, with the keen cinematographic eye that turns cold opens and montages into moving postcards, and with our own deep yearning for just packing up and doing what we want, The Innocents tells a fantasy/sci-fi love story that's more mature and grounded than its counterparts.
The Innocents begins streaming Friday, Aug. 24 on Netflix.