The Innocents is a show about teens in love. It’s about other things, too — strained family relationships, knowing yourself, the joy of chunky-knit wool sweaters, the ability to shape-shift — but it’s mostly about lovebird teens, and on that crucial front, The Innocents succeeds. Even where the Netflix series falls short in its first season, which premieres this Friday, its misfires don’t seem to matter all that much. Our hero is a shape-shifter, there’s a mysterious Norwegian island, and murky questions linger about trauma and messages from absent mothers and sinister doctors with glasses. But at the bottom of it all, all that matters is that the teens are in love.
June (Sorcha Groundsell) and Harry (Percelle Ascott) are the show’s sweet and devoted couple, and The Innocents introduces them through a well-worn but effective trope: Chafing under the restrictions of strict parenting, Harry and June decide to run away together, but things quickly get weird when June unwittingly transforms into a man who looks like he’s trying to kidnap her. Harry is understandably alarmed, and from there, none of their escape plans go the way they’d imagined. Honestly, it’s all par for the course when you’re a teen runaway in a YA supernatural drama.
But it’s not like The Innocents needs to break new ground, anyway. The show is at its best when it does very sincere, persuasively performed versions of familiar genre themes. Much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or an untold number of witch stories), June’s transformative ability is terrifying and powerful, and it’s also a direct parallel to some of the potent emotional realities of being a young woman. In this case, her talent as a shape-shifter taps into the deep well of adolescent anxiety about finding yourself, deciding who to be, and anchoring your personality against the prevailing social winds. June is, like so many teen heroines before her, the kind of person who feels too much, whose own power frightens her, and who realizes that too many people are trying to claim her as their own.
The show’s perspective is focused through June — making it a clean-cut fantasy of power, self-searching, and having an adorable boyfriend — so it’s appropriate, then, that her insight and wary concern are contrasted with Harry’s blunt devotion and trust. Together, the two performances are unquestionably the best things about The Innocents. Groundsell, in particular, is great at resisting the binary of Strong Female Characters — that is, the damsel in distress versus the badass fighter — and she moves smoothly through being thrilled, confident, shaken, alarmed, distrustful, terrified, clingy, and self-sufficient. June’s joy feels palpable, as does her fear and her lust. Ascott’s Harry is also strong, and it’s a strength unmarred by the fact that his role is primarily to swear his fealty to June, over and over. That’s partly why the moments that hit the hardest are also the ones that are supposed to hit the hardest: June and Harry’s thrill at the chance to be together, their devastation when things go wrong. They love each other! It’d be hard not to root for them.
When the The Innocents does falter, it’s in ways that seem inevitable in the current era of Netflix dramatic storytelling. Its pilot is economical, and the whole season is only eight episodes — a good length for the story it’s trying to tell — but even still, there are moments when the show gets mired in side plots. More broadly, it suffers from storytelling that sloshes around aimlessly rather than getting to the point. Especially in its middle third, things seem to just happen, with little thought to how various plot threads might better fit together to build tension. It’s easy to lose track of why the baddies are chasing down some particular goal, or what’s going on with June’s dad and brother as she and Harry continue their picaresque journey. The show would be better if it juggled its plots more deftly.
Its characters are also unevenly drawn. Faced with extraordinary circumstances, June and Harry have coherent ideas about who they are and what they want. For the most part, that’s also true of June’s father John (Sam Hazeldine) and brother Ryan (Arthur Hughes), who end up rushing around after the teens, hoping to get June back to safety. It’s less true for The Innocents’ crew of nearly identical Scandinavian shape-shifting women, largely because the show plays with hiding their motives in a way that gets too close to actually muddying their motives. It’s even less true for the show’s maybe-a-villain, maybe-a-savior Halvorson (Guy Pearce). The Innocents flirts with revealing his true intent, and insists on stretching the mystery long past the point when it’s useful. In the service of keeping his real goals ambiguous, Halvorson tends to make baffling choices that feel so plainly prone to failure, it almost ruins the show’s otherwise compelling big moments. All the threads do pull through by the end, mostly in the ways you were expecting, but the failure to give Halvorson a stable emotional framework means they don’t tie together as well as they should.
Still, The Innocents has so many things going for it that none of this feels too troubling. Its specific mythology of shape-shifting has the right balance of novelty, stable mechanics, and unexplained mystery. The show is almost never funny, but it does have the good sense to put some lighter moments into Harry and June’s dark voyage. And then there’s Sanctum, the cryptic, remote compound that Halvorson runs somewhere on a fjord in Norway. Even after watching the whole season, some things about Sanctum still make no sense to me. But its atmospherics are so compelling, laying out a specific fantasy of back-to-the-earth wholesomeness with a big dollop of suspicion, a bit like if Lost’s island masqueraded as a lovely farm-to-table New Scandinavian restaurant and bespoke sweater outfitter. (Many, many things are outlawed in Sanctum, but nothing seems as verboten as synthetic fibers.) After the romance of Harry and June, Sanctum is the most effective piece of The Innocents, a place feels both otherworldly and solid.
I suspect the most polarizing part of The Innocents’s first season will be its last episode, which appears well on its way to packaging everything up neatly into a clean eight-episode arc — until it quite dramatically does not. Given the fact that all supernatural teen romances ache to franchise themselves, that swerve is unsurprising. But I found it unfair, and after pouting for a while, I realized that my frustration was also a testament to the series. If nothing else, The Innocents made me care about these two ill-fated teens and their grand romance.