Netflix puts out such a staggering amount of content — over 60 original titles in May alone — that it can be hard to discern which new shows are actually worth your time, or if you'll binge an entire series only to find out you have no one to discuss it with because it got buried under "Watch It Again" suggestions for The Office and Friends. But a show like Netflix's new young adult drama The Society is one that begs to be discussed.
From Party of Five creator Christopher Keyser, The Society follows a group of high school students who, instead of being taken to the Smokey Mountains like they are expecting, find themselves in an exact replica of their upper-class Connecticut town. Only when they go to their homes, the teenagers realize all of their parents, siblings, and even their pets are nowhere to be found. Technologically and literally cut off from the rest of the world (the roads out of town simply turn to forest just outside the city border), the terrified kids must figure out how to survive on their own — or if they'll destroy each other before they can figure out how.
The appropriately named Cassandra (Legion's Rachel Keller) steps up to lead the 200 or so frightened teens, attempting to create an egalitarian, socialist society despite pushback from entitled rich kid Harry (Alex Fitzalan) and his bro-y cohorts who have no desire to sacrifice anything of their own for the good of the many. While everyone is forced to grapple with the increased pressure on personal accountability, no one is more changed by the new status quo than Cassandra's younger sister Allie (Detective Pikachu's Kathryn Newton), who had happily hidden in her sister's shadow until she's forced to stand on her own in this new world.
A bit like The 100 meets The Leftovers, with a bit of Under the Dome thrown in for good measure, The Society is one part dystopian, political drama and one part existential examination of whether life's hardships are retribution from a higher power or just an inescapable consequence of living — although it's hard to tell which way the series is leaning even after watching the entire first season. While not being able to interpret a show's core point of view would be a detriment for most shows, with The Society it feels more like the entire point. These first 10 episodes feel almost entirely disinterested in the potential puzzle box aspects of how they kids got to this world, preferring instead to examine the existential questions that seemingly are the show's true mystery: If you had the chance to rebuild the world and redefine your place in it, could you do it better and what role would you play? Is being transported to this new world a punishment for previous sins, or are these kids the ones who have been saved?
By focusing in on these questions, The Society establishes itself as a fitting show for these times, tapping into the current concerns of the younger generation regarding the corrupt, unstable world their parents left them to pick up the pieces of. But while the show tackles these pressing questions — including ones surrounding class dynamics, toxic masculinity, and the limits of morality when the rules of behavior we once counted on no longer seem to exist — it noticeably side-steps the topic of race almost entirely. The Handmaid's Tale took a similar tact, and once again this avoidance undermines not only the believability of this story but the social commentary The Society is clearly aiming to impart.
But while The Handmaid's Tale is a prestige series that's tightly bound to its political morals, The Society is more like a frothy YA thriller that uses its social commentary to add depth to its (occasionally outlandish) teen drama, such as the pressures of prom, finding your social circle, learning to be independent, and other familiar touchstones of high school experience, even if going to class is now obsolete. Despite these weak spots, The Society still has enough worthwhile things to say that it's worth setting aside time for. This is in large part because it's a show that clearly knows exactly where it's going from the jump, establishing its character dynamics through action rather than exposition and seeding hints at storylines that could potentially play out over multiple seasons to come. It may take a few episodes before the stakes are raised as high as the premise deserves, but The Society's first season is a highly entertaining binge that also gives the largely unknown ensemble cast chance ample opportunities to shine.
While Allie resides at the center of the story, quickly becoming the Atlas of this new world, it's really the supporting players that give The Society its heart. It's hard to imagine becoming invested in this world without the intellectual jock Grizz (Jack Mulhern), whose hidden vulnerabilities provide some of the most touching scenes of the season; or the tender friendship between Becca (Pamela Adlon's daughter Gideon Adlon), who prefers to observe the action from afar but finds herself in the center of it after realizing she's pregnant, and Sam (Switched at Birth's Sean Berdy), her deaf and gay best friend who offers to raise the child with her.
Unlike other popular teen-focused shows on the streaming service, such as Sex Education or Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Society lacks a defining visual aesthetic and there are limits to certain storylines' believability (the recurring butchering of how the game "F---, Marry, Kill" is played is inexplicable and oddly frustrating). But it's the show's willingness to treat its young ensemble like well-read, well-spoken characters (with the exception of a few beer-soaked jocks) who are capable of directly grappling with some of life's toughest questions that helps set it apart from other young adult dramas, many of which are more concerned with delivering GIF-worthy moments instead of coherent storytelling.
And while Netflix has established itself as a leading home for coming-of-age comedies, the service has still struggled to produce a great YA drama from its overwhelming content output. 13 Reasons Why generates a lot of buzz, but often for the wrong reasons, and while the Danish co-production The Rain, the Spanish co-production Elite, and the shape-shifting drama The Innocents are all perfectly addicting binges, none of the shows engage deeply enough with the universal themes of growing up that often help YA stories transcend from good to great.
While The Society's ambitions may overreach the show's skill set at times, it still manages to raise the bar for YA dramas on the streaming service, setting out to seriously interrogate the tough questions we're all facing right now, especially as the next presidential race intensifies. Is life cruel because that's just the way it is, or is it people's cruelty that have made it so? Are the bad behaviors and biases of the older generation so ingrained in today's youth that history is doomed to repeat itself? Or could the next generation find a way to persist, and maybe even succeed, despite the state their parents left the world in?
The Society doesn't hold the answers to these questions, nor does it always address them eloquently, but the show does seem to suggest that through a combination of keeping faith and putting in the work, maybe there is hope for us all — if only humanity can get out of its own way.
The Society premieres Friday, May 10 on Netflix.