tv review

Marvel’s Runaways Isn’t Quite a Teenage Dream

Photo: Paul Sarkis/Hulu

Marvel’s Runaways is what happens when you mix The O.C., Veronica Mars, the seventh episode of Stranger Things 2, and a Marvel Universe property, then put it on Hulu instead of the CW or Netflix. It’s the sort of mystery-driven, slightly X-Men-ish drama that could easily suck you in on a lazy Saturday, but one that doesn’t quite feel like a must-watch, at least not based on the first four episodes Hulu made available in advance.

Created by the minds behind The O.C. and Gossip Girl, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, and based on the comics by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, Runaways has a deliberately enigmatic narrative that serves as a strong selling point as well as a frequent source of frustration.

The first episode introduces the 16 principal characters — and yes, 16 is a lot for one series to handle. Six of them are teenagers who used to be tight but have since grown apart: the semi-nerdy Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), good girl Barbie doll Karolina (Virginia Gardner), sarcastic feminist Gert (Ariela Barer), Gert’s shy adopted sister Molly (Allegra Acosta), hot lacrosse jock Chase (Gregg Sulkin), and depressed goth girl Nico (Lyrica Okano), who recently lost a sister to suicide. The other ten primary figures are their parents, including Karolina’s mother Leslie (Annie Wersching), the leader of the blatantly Scientology-esque Church of Gibborim, and Alex’s mom and dad (Angel Parker and Ryan Sands), who, like all the other adults in this social circle, are members of an organization called the Pride.

What is the Pride? It’s not clear, at least not in the initial installments. All we know after the first episode is that the group engages in rituals in the bowels of Alex’s mega-mansion that involve donning red cloaks and maybe, possibly killing people. The teens, who I shall refer to as the Pride Breakfast Club, happen to have a rare get-together at Alex’s house on the same night as a Pride meeting and catch their parents in the midst of some suspicious secret society ritual, forcing the junior set to team up and investigate while keeping their parents in the dark about what they’ve seen. As all of that happens, some of the kids are also beginning to realize they have otherworldly powers, like the strength to move and bend heavy objects or turn their flesh into pure luminescent glitter. (I’m not sure what function that latter power serves, but I guess having the ability to create instant mood lighting is pretty cool.)

Basically, there are a lot of things happening to a bunch of different characters, but the meaning of it all remains so elusive, especially in the first two episodes, that it’s sometimes challenging to invest in the narrative. That seems to be by design: Runaways reveals information in a slow trickle that appears to be engineered to keep viewers so curious they can’t wait to get to the next episode. (The first three land on Hulu on Tuesday, with seven more to follow in the weeks ahead.) That approach does work on some level; after the third episode, I was certainly intrigued to see where things would go in the fourth. But it also tends to produce scenes weighed down with vague yet seemingly significant lines that aren’t immediately supported by additional information, like, “Nothing can jeopardize that construction site,” or “If everything goes as planned, this is the last time anyone has to be here.” All of which will make you, the viewer, go: “What the hell are these people even talking about?”

If you’ve read the comics, this will obviously be less of an issue. But if you haven’t and come to Runaways cold, you’ll need patience with the pace of the exposition and some tolerance for portentous dialogue.

That said, Runaways feels much more tonally and visually similar to one of Schwartz’s and Savage’s high-school shows than a dark work of comic noir, and that’s a good thing. While the adolescent heroes and heroines probe into matters of life, death, and potentially criminal activity, they’re also dealing with normal teen stuff like bullies, social media chatter, cliques, and crushes on each other. (Predictably, more than one of the Pride Breakfast Club members has the hots for Chase.) Even the underlying premise of Runaways — that a bunch of kids can’t entirely trust their parents — is a way to address one of the most common feelings that young people have as they morph into adults. It’s also nice that those young people have been cast to reflect a range of ethnicities and backgrounds, even if their personalities fit into convenient, archetypical high school boxes.

Much like The O.C. before it, Runaways declares its intent to provide escapism with its depiction of L.A.’s glossy environs, from the sandy beaches where the kids often meet up to the stunningly massive, contemporary homes where several of them live. Alex’s house, for example, is larger than the campuses at most small liberal arts colleges and filled with all sorts of fun amenities, like coasters that open a secret doorway to The Pride’s underground lair, a place the kids refer to as “the murder library.” (If teen TV has taught me anything, it’s that no palatial estate is complete without a pool house and/or a murder library.)

Runaways also starts to display more of a sense of humor as it goes on, especially in the fourth episode, which is spiked with several tart lines. “You’re a lightweight drunk, and a lacrosse-ruining slut,” a snotty girl says to Karolina. It’s a moment that would fit in perfectly in Mean Girls.

Unfortunately, each episode adds more layers of drama to the parents’ stories, including affairs and other assorted cover-ups, when there’s already plenty to explore within the teen and parent-child relationships, not to mention the activities of the Pride and the Church of Gibborim. Perhaps Runaways will figure out how to elegantly navigate all of those story strands as it continues. While I’m not totally sold yet, there are signs by episode four that what’s often true about the high-school experience could turn out to be true about this series: It might get better as it goes along.

Marvel’s Runaways Isn’t Quite a Teenage Dream