tv review

Runaways Finally Fulfills Its Premise, and Some of Its Promise, in Season Two

Photo: Greg Lewis/Hulu

In the first season of Hulu’s Runaways, the outline of a promising series combining teen drama with superhero antics and a solid dash of snark was buried in plot that slogged along through endless side tangents. Season two suggests that Runaways is still laboring under some misapprehension about which of its characters are the most interesting, but at the very least it finally fulfills its premise of a group of talented high schoolers fleeing their supervillain parents. That’s right: The Runaways finally run away!

Runaways’s best assets — its propulsive, messy mélange of a mythos and its very large cast — are also its biggest liabilities. Like the comics on which it’s based, the fundamental magical mechanisms of the Runaways TV adaptation are a grab bag, as evidenced by the disparate superpowers of each teenager. Nico (Lyrica Okano) is a Wiccan with a magical staff, Karolina (Virginia Gardner) is a half-alien whose power is a fuzzily explained rainbow glow thing, Gert (Ariela Barer) is psychically linked to a genetically engineered dinosaur named Old Lace, and Molly (Allegra Acosta) has superhuman strength of indeterminate origin. The two male members of the intrepid teen band are less blessed in the way of especially amazing powers, but Chase (Gregg Sulkin) is a great engineer with a set of blaster gauntlets called “Fistigons,” and Alex (Rhenzy Feliz) is … very smart? I guess eventually you do run out of distinct superpowers to dole out.

Discovering that their parents are a coalition of evildoers called the Pride really should’ve spurred this intrepid band of teens to run away in the first season of the show. Instead, they dithered for a full season, debating pros and cons and denying that things (like murder) were that bad. So it’s a relief that by the beginning of season two they’ve at last made the decision to fly the coop, and the absurd logistical snarl of six teenagers and a dinosaur trying to feed and house themselves while on them lam from their supervillain parents ends up being the best part of the season. This was always where the comics’ best material came from, too: the shock and betrayal of realizing your parents are monsters, combined with the shock and disorientation of suddenly needing to take care of yourself.

When the show is most successful, it’s also stripped down to that relatively sparse engine. Early in the season the teens stumble over an abandoned mansion hidden inside a mountain (sure!), and the stories that take place in their delightfully ramshackle hideaway — the dumpster-diving troves, the effort to wire the place for electricity, a big standoff with a bad guy, one absolutely lovely quinceañera party, the regular tidal movement of various romantic pairings drifting together and apart — that’s the good stuff. The romance between Gert and Chase is especially satisfying, beginning from the “opposites attract” logic of a jock dating a riot grrrl and then slowly developing through stages of infatuation and distrust and betrayal and sweetness. There’s a promising development toward the end of the season as well, when an awkward alien suitor appears and throws a wrench in one of the established couples; it’s a plot that begins with an overtone of threat and then turns funny, which are the moments when the show shines most brightly. When Runaways has a sense of humor, which happens most frequently in and around the mansion/headquarters, the show is at its best.

As so often happens on teen dramas, the problem is the parents. A witch, a girl with a psychically linked dinosaur, a half-alien, a kid with super strength, a jock with gauntlet blasters, and a genius nerd would seem like more than enough premise to be getting along with, and yet Runaways invests tons of time in its various assorted grown-up baddies. One set of parents are deranged crunchy-granola evil bioengineers (Stacey and Dale, played by Brigid Brannagh and Kevin Weisman), another set are engaged in an internecine war over their popular cult-like church (Leslie and Frank, played by Annie Wersching and Kip Pardue), and Chase’s dad Victor (James Marsters) spends much of the season immersed in a tank of … healing goo? One of the adults, Julian McMahon’s Jonah, is an alien with vague, under-explained motives who needs a human sacrifice in order to survive or else his skin slowly peels off in a process that looks mostly like he’s been covered in shaving cream.

After being thrilled by the too-long-in-coming running away, all I wanted from season two of Runaways was an all-out clash between the underdog teen heroes and their villainous parents, but in spite of devoting ample story to the parental squabbles, Runaways never quite delivers on that front. When the show does lean in that direction, things zip along nicely. In one scene, for instance, Nico’s mother is chasing Nico and Karolina with remote drones, and when Nico and Karolina pause to make out with each other, the drone pauses, too, zooming in so the long-distance mother can watch in shock. It’s a great example of where Runaway’s tone feels most assured, when it’s part action romp, part real emotional drama between parents and kids.

But for too much of the season, the parents aren’t even the primary source of drama. Somehow, the series finds space to add in a story about Alex and a complicated setup for a murder that occurred in season one. It, too, gets heaped onto a straining pile of plot that already included superhero teen runaways, aliens, dinosaurs, witches, mystical power-imbuing rocks, and a freaky cult.

It’s too much! And as a result, the season rolls along in a snappy but not especially comprehensible jumble. It’s not boring, but it’s not as gripping as it could be, either. Compared with the stilted, motionless season one, season two of Runaways is a definite improvement. If the show could bring itself to ditch the parents as well as its teen protagonists did, it could be even better.

Runaways Fulfills Its Premise, and Some of Its Promise