Netflix's The Innocents Review: Is It 13 Reasons Why With Superpowers?

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
If there is one lesson we've learned since 13 Reasons Why became one of Netflix's buzziest shows, it’s that teen content works phenomenally well for everyone's favorite streaming site. Murder teens triumph, as do funny teens, and, if you ask certain corners of social media, polarizing teens. This YA success is probably the reason everyone’s favorite streaming site ended up with its latest teen series, The Innocents, which premieres Friday, August 24. The upcoming sci-fi drama introduces us to a shape-shifting teen, British high schooler June (Sorcha Groundsell), a young woman whose life turns upside down when she turns 16.
While The Innocents won’t remind you of the melodrama at 13 Reasons Why’s crisis-plagued high school, it does have some flavors of a few other high-profile teen shows. Namely, The End Of The F***king World and Cloak & Dagger, with a dash of The Rain’s aesthetic. The eight-episode mix makes for a series that doesn’t quite leave the same lasting impression of its predecessors, but does seem perfectly calibrated for endless Tumblr shipping.
We enter The Innocents on the eve of June’s 16th birthday. Viewers are meant to quickly figure out her father John (Sam Hazeldine) — or, father figure? There’s a lot of confusing back-and-forth about the pair's exact biological relationship — is planning to whisk his little girl off to a middle-of-nowhere island the moment sweet 16 hits. While June thinks John is being disturbingly overprotective years after her mother Elena (Laura Birn) abandoned the family, it’s suggested that something more concerning than helicopter parenting is the cause of John's weird behavior. In fact, John might be trying to save his daughter rather than trap her in Scotland.
Well, June doesn’t know any of this, so she runs away with her boyfriend Harry (Percelle Ascott), who has his own trying family situation. Everything is open roads, gummy candies, and sweet kisses until it isn’t. Soon enough June and Harry are on the run from a mysterious man in a van (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson)… and June shape shifts into that man.
Eventually it becomes clear the problem isn’t with the Van Man — it’s with June. June has powers. This is difficult for both halves of the titular innocent couple to come to terms with. For June, her body has become a foreign, terrifying entity subject to warp her entire life at any moment. It's a solid metaphor for teens' fears about entrance into adulthood and their likely burgeoning sex lives. For Harry, he’s caught dealing with superpowers and conspiracies when he just wanted a little freedom with his girlfriend.
The parallels to Netflix’s best new series of the year, TEOTFW, are obvious. Like Alyssa (Jessica Barden) and James (Alex Lawther), The Innocents follows two British teens whose harmless running away from home scheme turns very horrific very fast. But, unlike The End Of The F***king World, a darkly comedic murder isn’t at fault; superpowers are. You know, like ones from Cloak And Dagger. That Freeform adventure also features an interracial leading duo, just like The Innocents. Yet, Netflix’s new series doesn’t exactly grapple with race in the same way Cloak is nearly obsessed with exploring.
That avoidance of going below surface level with these characters is what keeps The Innocents from rising above the category of “Average Teen Show With A Very Cute Couple” to the rarified air of “A Fantastic Netflix Binge.” After watching the series, it’s hard to define the personality traits of June and Harry, the true drivers of this narrative, other than their love for each other. Yes, they are thrown into countless harrowing, romantic situations that are made to be GIFed. But do they have hobbies? Interests? Dreams other than ending up together? After eight episodes, that's not exactly clear.
Until the last few installments of the series — when a genuinely very good twist arises — it’s difficult to even parse out the personalities of both June and Harry’s loved ones past their interest in tracking down these wayward teens. Nearly everyone on screen is simply defined by their relationships to each other rather than a thriving, memorable inner life.
At least the series does have a creepily intriguing B-plot set in Norway, which revolves around June’s mom Elena, her obviously evil doctor Halvorson (movie star Guy Pearce), a bunch of mysterious blonde women, and the key to June’s powers. For people who miss the sweeping Scandinavian vistas of The Rain, The Innocents will serve as eye candy. For people who love to wonder if any unsettling situation is a secret cult, The Innocents will induce your wildest theorizing.
Now if only everything else about June and Harry's world was just as enthralling.
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