I’m willing to admit when I’m not the target audience for something and so I understand that Netflix’s “The Innocents,” premiering in an eight-episode first season on Friday, probably wasn’t made with a 43-year-old man in mind. However, the best Young Adult fiction reaches beyond its demographic, satisfying the adults as much as the teenagers. I’ve liked plenty of YA films, even if the market became glutted a few years ago when every studio in Hollywood sought the new “Hunger Games” or “Twilight,” quality be damned. But Netflix has made some waves lately with shows clearly designed for young adults, particularly “13 Reasons Why,” and so it makes sense that they would drop a YA sci-fi series just before the end of summer. I just wish the show respected its audience more and understood how the best YA television and film doesn’t talk down to or spoon feed its viewers. As is, it’s almost like Netflix’s attempt at a CW show you probably never heard of, although, to be fair, most of those are better (don’t get me started on how much I love “Riverdale”).
“The Innocents” centers on a pair of star-crossed young lovers named June (Sorcha Groundsell) and Harry (Percelle Ascott). June’s father is planning to move her far out of town on her 16th birthday, and the young couple won’t have any of that, leading them to run away together the night before. The small problem is that June’s dad may have had a very specific reason to get June far from civilization when she turned 16 because, well, June’s got powers. At least one major one, which the couple discovers in the premiere when a strange, bearded man tries to kidnap June and the young lady, well, becomes him. She can shapeshift, taking the form of someone nearby while that person’s body is incapacitated in something that resembles a coma. Of course, when Harry’s love comes back to the motel in the form of a burly man, he understandably freaks out, but the two work through it and June eventually turns back. Where did June get this power? Can she learn to control it?
Meanwhile, we get snippets of a remote commune at which June’s mother Elena (Laura Birn) is one of the residents. It’s run by the mysterious Halvorson (Guy Pearce) and Sigrid (Lise Risom Olsen), who have strict rules and experiment on trying to control the shape-shifting power that June has clearly inherited. Obviously, June and Harry will eventually find their way there. Was June’s father planning to take her there all along? While all of this is unfolding, we also get scenes of Harry and June’s parents trying to track them down, and learning the truth about June.
“The Innocents” sacrifices its high concept potential for subtext about how young people aren’t sure who they are, with two kids who run away to “be who they want to be” and learn one can quite literally “be anyone.” It’s in the DNA of the plot but the show's writing team do nothing with it, focusing more on manufactured melodrama and YA standards—the whole thing has that classic narrative in which your flaw is really your "gift." Like so much YA fiction, everything here is over-directed and over-written, allowing no room for the teen audience to interpret any deeper meaning. Trust me, teens can handle subtext and don’t need every plot point repeated to them. And it’s a particular shame that this is so frustrating because the young leads are charming and have solid chemistry. It’s the construction of everything around them—including a flat performance from the typically-solid Pearce—that lets them down. It really is tough to be a teenager in 2018.