Netflix’s 'The Society' Takes Guilty Pleasure and Makes It Political
Imagine how William Golding’s Lord of the Flies would turn out if the CW made a modern adaptation. Everyone would be an attractive 20-year-old playing a hormonal teenager. Because they’re left unchecked, there would be a surprising amount of substance abuse. The social issues tackled in the novel would be intact, but packaged in easy-to-digest Cliffs Notes that would be jarring both in terms of dramatic impact and logical inconsistency.
This is exactly what Netflix’s The Society is like, and it’s actually good television if you’re willing to grade it on a curve.
Young adult television often falls in the realm of guilty pleasure because of how shallow the characters’ issues may seem. Blair Waldorf can’t stand Jenny Humphrey’s rise in popularity. Archie Andrews just wants to be a musician, but his dad and football coach don’t agree with the decision. Brenda Walsh is forbidden from dating Dylan McKay. There’s always something deeper that gives the show an edge—in the case of Gossip Girl, for example, how an anonymous public gossip network can destroy lives—but it usually ends up being secondary to utterly delicious drama.
The Society takes that edge and brings it to the forefront. A class of teenagers goes on a field trip, only to come back home to a town completely devoid of other people. Without adults to guide them, they’re tasked with recreating their society from scratch. What follows is an intense portrayal of anarchy, democratic dictatorships, police states, and how everything falls apart when social contracts are broken. Civilization, the show demonstrates, is as flimsy as a single person’s promise.
There is real tension between what a character wants and what society needs, and that creates most of the drama we’re used to seeing on other young adult shows. Each character’s travails have a significant impact on how the collective moves forward, and vice versa. A wealthy young heartbreaker’s sense of entitlement creates factions within the community. The outcomes of relationship issues are decided by each partner’s political responsibilities. Drunken “guy talk” leads to a murder. The town’s political systems are constantly on the brink of implosion.
Although the characters’ story arcs still hit familiar notes, they’re often interlaced with heavier themes of religion, politics, ethics, and gender. It’s refreshing to see this level of discussion in a show geared toward young adult audiences, and that alone makes The Society promising television. However, it’s not without its faults.
The writing still suffers some of the pitfalls that give young adult television a bad name. Stereotypes are played up to an unbelievable degree: The Society’s resident smart guy, for example, is not only well-versed in medical science, but he’s skilled in computer technology, forensics, and astronomy, too. Dramatic moments are prioritized over character consistency and common sense. There is a glut of characters, which sometimes makes names and the more convoluted plot lines hard to follow.
Lines betray a slight disconnect between showrunners and the audience—in one particular scene, a character says the word “thot” to make her more relatable to the younger set, but also has her define it to someone her own age for the benefit of the writers’ generation. Some major plot points aren’t revisited until six episodes later.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the show is how significant character beats seem to come out of nowhere. A relationship is revealed to be abusive without much of the nuances being shown on camera; instead, we’re given a scene where the abusive partner attempts to drown the other. A character leads a coup because of forced labor, even though we never actually see that character working. A major political figure isn’t really given screen time before they make an explosive statement. As a result, the drama can feel like it’s there solely for shock value, even though every single moment could have been earned, had the writers paid attention to detail.
On this level, it’s hard to defend The Society from those who might look down on young adult television. The technical and creative issues it suffers lump it in with the rest of the competition. If you can look past them, however, and appreciate the greater picture, it's hard to stop watching the show.
In fact, like every guilty pleasure out there, you might even say it’s good.
The Society is now streaming on Netflix.