Spoiler Note: If you don’t want to know anything about either series, go watch one and then come back—they are, in fact, the same! Otherwise, the reveals discussed below shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of either.
Here is a story about a teenage girl: She is 16, maybe 17. White. Relatively new to a small, economically hard-up town in the American Northeast. Her harried single mom pulls doubles at the local diner. She loves Cool™ music and has an eye for style hipper than her years, but she also has a caustically bad attitude—a bad attitude that, coupled with an almost pathologically self-centered perspective on the world, keeps most would-be friends at arm’s length. In the aftermath of a violent act from a man close to her, she finds that she has developed, as a kind of defense mechanism, an equally violent kind of psychic power—a psychic power that may or may not be genetic, and may or may not have something to do with why her dad isn’t around, but absolutely is all tangled up in what it means to be a teenage girl.
Discovering these powers isn’t a gift for this girl; it is scary, isolating, and physically taxing. Thankfully, a sweet, curly-haired boy from school (also a kind of social outcast, though not because of a bad attitude), accidentally sees her powers in action. He enthusiastically steps up to become her confidant/cheerleader/sidekick, pressing her to work on honing her “gift” with the ultimate goal of turning it into a heroic superpower. Shortly thereafter, the girl’s only female friend—who’s really closer to a sister, and who later becomes central to a B-plot about queer identity—joins the curly-haired boy in supporting our superpowered heroine. Our girl isn’t convinced she could ever be a hero, not least because the trauma/grief that kicked her powers into high gear still weighs like a ten-ton weight on her soul, but for the sake of the few friends she has managed to make in this tiny, backwards town, she at least tries.
It doesn’t matter. the world doesn’t have time for her to recover enough to find out who she is for sure either way. New violence borne of wounded masculinity looms around one corner, while a shadowy male figure who’s been watching her since the beginning looms around another. Events come to a tense, dramatic head; finally, thanks to this girl’s psychic powers, the primary figure of wounded masculinity who had been threatening her all season long is suddenly, gruesomely dead. The girl runs, but before she can get away, the mystery man who’s been following her every move steps out from the shadows, stopping her in her tracks. He’s not afraid of the bloody destruction she left behind. In fact, he’s here at last to offer her something resembling answers.
End of Season 1. Cut to black.
If you’re someone who’s recently housed the short (7 half-hour episodes!) first season of Netflix’s newest supernatural teen dramedy, I Am Not Okay with This, this plot breakdown probably sounds super familiar. I mean, save for a few skipped Carrie and John Hughes references, and disregarding the entire existence of a little brother, that’s it—that’s the whole origin story of Sydney Novak (the It franchise’s Sophia Lillis), Not Okay’s psychically powered teen lead. Girl hates world; girl’s dad commits suicide; girl’s hate for the world explodes; girl’s world explodes. Literally. Because of grief, sure, and also because of feeling like an anger-filled freak who has no idea how to fit in around other humans. But mostly because of her new powers of telekinesis. Violent telekinesis.
The thing is, that plot breakdown isn’t for I Am Not Okay with This. It’s for YouTube Premium’s hour-long sci-fi drama, Impulse, which premiered in 2018, and which stars Maddie Hasson as Henrietta Coles, a too-cool-for-high-school new kid in town whose new powers of teleportation manifest as a violent defense mechanism when an awkward car date turns into sexual assault. (Read our pre-Season 2 interview with Hasson about Henry’s superpowers and how her series tackles the legacy of sexual assault/trauma here.)
Now, I’m not here to make a case that either series ripped off the other. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell? Doom Patrol and the X-Men? Fyre and Fyre Fraud (2 Fyre 2 Fraudulent)? Simultaneous invention/convergent (comic) evolution is a well-established phenomenon. Not only that, the television development process is long. Sure, Charles Forsman’s I Am Not Okay with This micro-comic was published in 2017, a year before Impulse first found its way behind YouTube’s paywall. Sure, part of Impulse’s whole origin story is that it was envisioned, from the start, as a way for series EP Doug Liman to have a second go at adapting the Steven Gould novels that originally inspired Liman’s 2008 film, Jumper. Arguments could be made that either project, even if only by accident, inspired the other. But honestly, there are just so many similarities between the two series that the thing most likely to be true is that the same parts of the pop culture/storytelling landscape that spoke to Impulse’s creative team as they developed all the details of Henry’s life, also spoke to Not Okay’s team as they developed Syd’s.
That said, given almost literally the exact same set of tools, Impulse’s first season is a work of a harrowing psychological nuance that is populated with complex characters operating on multiple dimensions, while I Am Not Okay with This does little more than vamp on Syd’s stalled anger and wink at the audience over its truly impressive (but contextually confounding) wash of retro references and aesthetics. Sure, the former has the benefit of a longer episodic runtime and a longer season order, and of course the goals of a sci-fi all-ages drama are totally different from those of a supernatural teen dramedy. But still, I Am Not Okay with This is just… fine. Honestly, aside from the gruesomely explosive climax and the genuinely compelling performances that both Lillis and her Real Teen™ co-stars Wyatt Oleff (a fellow It franchise alum) and Sofia Bryant put in—performances that will make you cringe in a chilling, visceral way at the memory of your own teen hang-ups and humiliations—the seven episodes that make up the Netflix series’ first season are so narratively slight that, were it not for the eerie degree of similarity between it and the first season of Impulse, Not Okay would be dangerously forgettable.
And yet, at the end of the day, between its End of the F***ing World creative pedigree, its spiritual connection to both Stranger Things and It, and its home on the shiny behemoth of a streamer that is Netflix, I Am Not Okay with This is likely to come out the winner in terms of the number of people who actually sit down to watch it, no matter how just fine it is in its final execution. We saw (or rather, didn’t see) the same dynamic play out when Netflix’s dull Godless stifled USA’s much bolder Damnation; we saw it play out when You as a Netflix property hysterically outperformed You as a Lifetime one. “Roads?!” Doc Brown famously exclaimed at the end of Back to the Future. “Where we’re going, we don’t NEED roads!” Well, same. Only on Netflix, where we’re going, we don’t need great. We just need… fine.
This doesn’t feel great! But of course the thing is, it doesn’t matter if I’m frustrated by any of it, either as a critic or as a fan—it won’t stop I Am Not Okay with This from finding a sizable audience, even as more compelling shows about literally the same thing while away in relative obscurity beyond Netflix’s walls.
That said, YouTube Premium has been making some changes to its subscription model over the past year, bringing older seasons of its Original series out from behind the paywall to help entice new viewers. It’s no competition for Netflix as a whole, but the upside for anyone interested in seeing this particular example of convergent comic evolution play out for themselves? The entire first season of Impulse is available right now, for free, for everyone. So if the more dramatic parts of Syd’s story, which is Henry’s story, interest you in the slightest, navigate on over from one digital monopoly to another and give Impulse a shot. You won’t regret it.
I Am Not Okay with This Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix. Impulse Season 1 is now streaming free on YouTube; Season 2 is available behind the YouTube Premium paywall.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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