Runaways is the best new TV series you probably missed
The so-called golden age of TV has brought us an embarrassment of riches, which means you're just as likely to miss a gem as you are to see 5,000 versions of the same dumb premise. Runaways, which debuted its first three episodes on Hulu last week, is one of those hidden gems you'll want to find. Based on a beloved comic by Brian K. Vaughan (Saga and Y: The Last Man), it's the story of six teens who discover their parents are part of a secret supervillain organization called Pride. The series takes this premise in fascinating new directions and delivers a surprisingly nuanced exploration of adolescent rebellion as a struggle against adult corruption.
Light spoilers ahead.
In terms of recent comic book TV fare, Runaways belongs in the same camp as Legion, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. Like these other series, Runaways is character-driven and has already developed a characteristic style that ignores the "good guy vs. bad guy" tropes of more conventional (albeit delightful) superhero series like Supergirl and The Flash. Created by Stephanie Savage (Gossip Girl, The O.C.) and Josh Schwartz (Gossip Girl, Chuck), Runaways seems to exist somewhere between the heightened reality of a smart high school drama and the tech-meets-magic world of Tony Stark. The first episode takes its time introducing our characters, making sure we know who they are as people before we figure out what makes them extraordinary.
Memorable, multi-layered characters
Case in point: We meet Molly (Allegra Acosta) when she's trying awkwardly to do a dance tryout while having her first period—and while having the worst cramps of her life. What follows is a series of deft, funny/sad scenes in which we realize that part of Molly's pain comes from missing her mother who died in a car accident long ago. But Molly's also trying to cope with her adoptive hippie mom, who gives her herbs for cramps instead of sweet, sweet ibuprofen. We wind up with a concrete sense of who Molly is and why she's dealing with more than just teen angst. Which is right about the time when she gets another cramp, her eyes glow yellow, and she bends a metal bed frame with her bare hands.
Over the first three episodes, we meet each character in similar ways: person first, superbeing second. Alex (Rhenzy Feliz) is the geeky kid who is still recovering from the death of his friend two years ago (but who is also a natural leader). Niko (Lyrica Okano) is a grumpy goth Wiccan who, like Alex, is mourning the death of her sister (but she's also got actual supernatural powers). Karolina (Virginia Gardner) is the reluctant "millennial face" of her mother's cult, the Church of Gibborim (but sometimes her arms dematerialize into rainbow sparkles). Chase (Gregg Sulkin) is the abused jock son of a brilliant mad scientist (but he's secretly a gifted engineer himself). And Gert (Ariela Barer) is the purple-haired SJW who can never get anyone to join her feminist club (but luckily the dinosaur living in her basement obeys her every command). They all used to be best friends, but high school has driven them apart.
Now something has brought them back together. Partly it was lonely Alex, sending all of them an invite to hang out while their parents have yet another Pride meeting in the basement. But after they accidentally catch a glimpse of what the Pride meetings really involve, they're bound by a shared secret. Their parents are evil, and they have to do something to stop them.
Except, to this show's credit, that premise is immediately complicated. Unlike the comic book, which focuses exclusively on the teens, the show also invites us into the personal lives of their parents. We get to know them—each extremely successful in their chosen careers—and find out that they aren't exactly zealous in their evil. In fact, they were all hoping to get out of Pride, but then something went very wrong. Instead of being supervillians, these parents are more like corrupt sellouts who have traded in their ethics for mansions and fancy biotech labs.
Still, there is a certain amount of supervillainy going on, as well as black magic, mad science, and a heaping dose of not giving a crap about human life. With Alex's slightly dorky guidance, the teens forge a new alliance to figure out what exactly Pride has been doing all these years. There's an urgency to their quest that goes beyond plot twists. Runaways makes us care about these characters very quickly, thanks to some great acting and writing. Even if they weren't dealing with superpowers, they would be interesting, multi-faceted people.
Their struggles would be interesting, too. It's rare for an adventure show to acknowledge the depth and complexity of teen relationships, but Runaways does it superbly, evoking these characters' rocky histories and genuine emotional bonds. Like their parents, these teens are struggling with forces bigger than themselves. But they still have a chance to make better choices.
Of course, the series delivers on the action, too. Alex and his friends may be dealing with weighty questions about grief and responsibility, but they are also trying to cope with having super strength and much weirder talents. Plus, they're having to lie to their parents about something a lot bigger than sneaking alcohol. The best part is that the show never suggests that the teens' powers reveal who they "really" are, à la X-Men. Gert's dinosaur and Karolina's stardust arms are just odd bends in a much longer road. And it's a road that Runaways made me want to follow, all the way to the end.
New episodes will air on Hulu every week on Tuesday.
Listing image by Hulu