The Society

Credits

Cast

Network

Reviewer

Paul Asay

TV Series Review

There are field trips, and then there are field trips.

The high schoolers of West Ham had a pretty big one on their collective calendar already: a week-long traipse through the Great Smoky Mountains. (The timing couldn’t be better, either, given the weird, inescapable odor plaguing the town.)

No one thought it’d be a trip from reality itself.

Toto, We’re Not in West Ham Anymore

Those high schoolers never make it to the Great Smokies. An, ahem, “rock slide” forces the busses to turn around and head back home. But when they get there, the teens find that the entire hamlet of Ham is empty. No parents. No teachers. No one to take their orders at McDonald’s. And while the teens can call and text to each other with abandon (phew!), every call to a parent ends with voice mail, every frantic dial to 911 winds up dropped.

No problem, right? West Ham doesn’t seem like it’s hurting for cash. Not only do most of these teens have driver’s licenses, but they have ready access to a Beemer or two as well. They’ll just hop in a car, drive to the next town and …

Oh, wait. Every road out of town runs smack-dab in the middle of a forest that looks as if it’s been there for a century or two. Teens who decide to hike out find the woods extend for what seems like an eternity. It’s like someone, or something, just picked up West Ham and plopped it right in the middle of the forest primeval.

These teens, they’re on their own. And goods from the pillaged grocery store in town are only going to stretch so far.

The Lord and the Lies

At first glance, Netflix’s The Society might look like any number of teen-centric, telegenic fantasy yarns, from The 100 on down. And sure, the show’s ingredient list fits that template. The characters are impossibly pretty or ruggedly handsome. We see much batting of eyes and throbbing of hearts. If we flip it on and watch for a few minutes, we might dismiss it as just another adolescent dystopian soap.

But The Society has higher aspirations than that. It feels far more like ABC’s landmark sci-fi mystery Lost, only with a cast of characters too young to drink (though most do so anyway).

Dig past the show’s soapy elements, and you find a rumination on society and civilization—with its collection of teens toying with democracies, police states and Lord of the Flies-like anarchy. One character hordes his parents’ gold bars. Another seizes a semblance of power with a handgun. Others champion a kinder, gentler, fledgling society—even as they’re pushed down harsher, more retributive, paths.

But The Society also explores the very concept of meaning. Why are we here? Is it all just happenstance, or can we find design behind it all?

“The world doesn’t just turn upside down without a reason,” says Cassandra, one-time class president. “We’re not in some play within a play, OK? … There is a point to everything. There are answers.”

Later, a deaf teen signs to a friend, “You’re looking for answers. There are none. Doesn’t this prove that?”

The show is achingly spiritual at times. Before the teens ever hop on their field-trip busses, a few come across some graffiti scrawled across the church’s brick wall: “Mene mene tekel upharsin,” it says, an allusion from the biblical book of Daniel. Even the name of the town, Ham, may reference the biblical son of Noah, who was cursed for seeing his father’s nakedness.

But The Society doesn’t stop at the Good Book when it comes to such classical references. It also alludes to everything from literature to old movies to nursery rhymes (a mysterious character named Pfeiffer may point to the child-stealing Pied Piper of Hamelin). It all makes for a provocative, thoughtful mystery.

Too bad about all the swearing.

Left Behind

For all its lofty ambitions, The Society gets mired in some pretty problematic territory. The f-word is perhaps the most used bit of vocabulary in the whole show, and we hear plenty of other choice obscenities and profanities as well. And remember, these are teens—many of them randy, ill-behaved teens—operating in a world without any sort of supervision or moral constraint at all. Some of the bad behavior seems to come with its own cautionary message, but not all. References to sexual acts are not infrequent.

The Society gives us a bevy of teens left to build civilization anew, using whatever lessons they’ve learned in their 16-to-18 years of life. The results are predictably mixed and, ironically, not fit for most teens.

Episode Reviews

May 9, 2019: “What Happened”

About 225 teens hop on a bus for a field trip. But when they’re forced to return home to West Ham, they find that everyone else is gone—and that they might be on their own for a good, long while.

Things go off the rails in a hurry. A party is hastily organized at the town’s church, where teens drink wildly to excess, get high and make out. (When one guy tries to apologize to his girlfriend for playing with another girl’s breasts, he makes the excuse that he was drunk. “Not drunker than usual,” she snaps back.)

Teens shower other teens with money and beer as Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” plays in the background. When a devout teen goes to the church the next morning, she’s shocked by the empty beer cans and the mess. (We see plenty of biblical and spiritual references throughout the episode, too, including some literal “writing on the wall” and a character who insists, “God doesn’t just play with people for fun.”)

One teen apparently performs oral sex on another. (The action takes place below the camera’s view.) When a guy suggests to a girl that they break into a restaurant and “hang out,” she calls him on it: “I know what you want.” He admits he does want that—and has for a long time—but the encounter goes no farther. Guys and girls kiss and make out. Before the trip, a mother forces her daughter to put a sweater over her cleavage-revealing top.

Someone’s bitten by a snake and slowly dies. The corpse is carried back to the church, where someone says Psalm 23 over the body. A character has heart trouble (and a scar on her chest to prove it), and grows pretty sick when she can’t find medicine. A man fires a gun up in the air, and he seems about ready to shoot someone, too. Boys sexually harass and order girls around.

We see a couple of characters smoke marijuana and hear them talk about getting high. We hear conversation about a party, and someone suggests bringing vodka. Guys urinate on a church wall and talk about both the need for, and the act of, urination. We hear that a high schooler accidentally set his house on fire when he tried to barbecue in his room. Teens pillage the grocery store.

Characters say the f-word about 50 times and the s-word nearly 30. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch” and “h—.” God’s name is misused four times (once with the word “d—n”), and Jesus’ name is abused three times (once with the f-word inserted between the first and “last” name).

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Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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