The Society Sets Fire to the Idea that Any of Us are Anything More than Scared Children, Throwing Rocks

TV Features The Society
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<i>The Society</i> Sets Fire to the Idea that Any of Us are Anything More than Scared Children, Throwing Rocks

I will say this—it’s a fucking trip, finally opening Twitter again after being submerged in the disquieting murk of The Society, Netflix’s new high-tech, aged-up take on Lord of the Flies. I’ve watched a lot of television whose nuanced self-possession has sharpened my understanding of what it means to be human—much of it, like The Society, made both for and about teenagers—but I genuinely can’t remember the last time I came out on the other side of a binge seeing the base tenuousness of the society we’ve made for ourselves with such terrifying new clarity. The Society manages the trick with a simple bus ride.

Look, here’s the deal: I want everyone to watch The Society. I am desperate to not be alone in seeing the world the way it reframes it. But although teen television has been peddling in intensely dark moral allegories for decades now, it is difficult to articulate just how existentially devastating The Society gets, or how quickly. The Society is so intense, in fact, that although I almost never feel it necessary to include content warnings for the shows I’m writing about, in this case, it almost feels irresponsible not to. To that end, please consider this an official CW for: gun violence (general); gun violence (in a school); domestic abuse; violence against animals (implied); violence against animals (described); capital punishment; weaponized misogyny; stalking; homophobia.

And that’s just in the eight-and-a-half episodes I managed to get through. (The Thanksgiving episode is so anxiety-inducing, I couldn’t stomach watching its direct aftermath.)

I realize that I my sales pitch for The Society could use some work, but please understand that, as with The Americans before it, there is a point to all that stomach-churning intensity. Figuring out how keep a civilized society running is the work of a thousand lifetimes; the allegory Golding constructed out of a pack of British boys, a mid-century war and a Pacific island isn’t bound only to that specific context. Every generation has its own flavor of existential tensions a good civilization-building allegory can be used to address. Think LOST. Battlestar Galactica. The 100.

In case the pitch-perfect inclusion of 17-year-old pop sensation Billie Eilish’s spooky smash single, “bury a friend,”, in all of The Society’s teaser trailers hadn’t already given it away, this newest, tautly nuanced version moves Golding’s boy-centric classic squarely into the realm of the streaming Gen Z audience that its sprawling, diverse cast—led, in part, by Blockers’ Kathryn Newton and Switched at Birth’s Sean Berdy—most acutely reflects. Gone are Ralph, Piggy and Jack’s feral British boys; gone, the crashed plane, the tropical island, the war. In their place, The Society gives its modern, existentially engaged audience a co-ed spread of hormonal high schoolers, left behind by a fleet of school buses that, returning from an aborted end-of-year camping trip, drop them off in the middle of the night in an empty, uncanny double of their idyllic New England hometown, where they discover the next day that not only is all satellite and internet connection to the outer world gone, but that all roads out of town end abruptly in impenetrable forest.

There’s obviously no explanation for this that won’t eventually turn out to be supernatural, but beyond pairing up a couple of the more scientifically minded teens to do some offscreen investigation, The Society isn’t remotely interested in spending a lot of time on the whys or wheres of the teens’ new reality. The only thing it cares about is sinking into the psychological nightmare of a bunch of underprepared kids realizing not only that they’re all alone in the universe, but that it’s on them to make up and enforce all the boring, hard rules required to sustain a civilized society.

Which, there’s a reason that this show is called The Society and not The Civilization. Whereas Lord of the Flies stranded its kids in a world without the creature comforts they grew up with in industrialized Britain, and LOST, Battlestar Galactica and The 100 barely gave their survivors much better, The Society leaves the kids of New Ham in a completely familiar world with A) electricity, B) running water, C) cell-to-cell call and texting service, D) grocery stores and home pantries stocked with enough food to last beyond winter, E) other stores stocked with everything needed to make necessary repairs, mount exploratory hikeouts into the surrounding forest, or establish farmland at some point in the future, F) a fully stocked and operational medical center and G) access to clean clothes, a movie theater, and all their childhood toys.

Lazier writers might use this set-up as a consequence-free space in which its characters can wild out, but while The Society allows that wilding out is not not at the top of its teens’ list of priorities, the inclusion of so many material security is anything but lazy. Rather than lessening the nightmare of their new reality, giving these kids all the domestic and technological comforts they’re accustomed to (beer and videogames included!) shifts the dramatic tension away from them having to fight to the death over the basics in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, to them having to fight for survival in ways much more psychological and impossible to come to terms with. When you were the richest kid in town, entitled to all the space and hook-ups and social power money could buy, how do you cope with the lost status a world in which money means nothing brings? Do you spiral into drugs and depression, like Harry (Alex Fitzalan), or do you use the shock of the change to reorient your priorities to center the good of the community, like Kelly (Kristine Froseth)? When you’re faced with the impossible decision of how to deal with a murderer, do you pull the trigger, or do you throw up and stumble away? Do you take the chaos as a chance to violently threaten your family, like Campbell (Toby Wallace), or do you use it as an opportunity to build something strong and new, like Sam (Berdy) and Becca (Gideon Adlon), or Helena (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and Luke (Alex MacNicoll)? Having such a huge cast means that The Society has a way to ask all of these questions, and find multiple nuanced, and often surprising ways to answer each.

Of course, the longer the teens are stuck in limbo without a way to renew their initial wealth of resources, the more pressing the threat of eventually having to fight for real survival becomes. Having Kathryn Newton playing Allie, one of the show’s few clear leads, is, in this respect, a genius move. The series’ press release listed Big Little Lies and Blockers as her most notable credits, but the show The Society’s target audience is even more likely to recognize her from is Supernatural, where she has spent years playing the jaded teen monster hunter Claire Novak, whose badass calm in the face of hairy, horny, very real monsters is only matched by the relish with which she kills them. Allie, meanwhile, has neither the stomach for killing anyone, nor the benefit of having her monsters be real. Well, scratch that—all of the monsters Allie and the rest of her stranded classmates face in The Society are real, and many them are also both horny and hairy. It’s just, the monsters Allie faces in The Society are completely, messily human—and not just human, but her friends. Her very human, very young, very naïve friends. And, she grows increasingly horrified to realize, to those very friends, the monster is often her. This is more or less the same epiphany The 100 wants to hammer into its audience week after week, but where that show is up to using its third nuclear bomb to bring that point home, The Society has made the point with even greater clarity, having only barely reached the point of throwing stones.

Which brings us back to that Billie Eilish track in all The Society’s trailers. “Eilish’s creepy confrontations of loss, fear, uncertainty, and death are just what younger listeners need.” The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix recently wrote of Eilish. “A generation that was born into a war and is accustomed to having videos of massacres autoplay on their devices should have limited patience for prefab bubblegum pop.” So, too, should they have limited patience for any show that tries to blow up reality without recognizing that it’s in the quiet, everyday scroll of Twitter that the true terror of our tenuous collective agreement to trust a world built of spit and crossed fingers resides.

The Society is now streaming on Netflix.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.