It is an inescapable fact that Netflix has tried to corner the market in content about teenagers and coming-of-age stories aimed at a teen and millennial audience. Whether it was an algorithm or an executive’s decision, the streaming service has devoted much of its original content production to stories about youth and in doing so, it has, as the U.S. edition of TV Guide said last year, “discovered an untapped storytelling gold mine.”
From rom-coms to the satiric American Vandal, to the controversial 13 Reasons Why and the even more controversial Insatiable, it has meant a flood of series and movies about the adolescent experience. Many are excellent, prestige-TV entertainment. And while it might be a gold mine for Netflix in content creation and grabbing a young audience, the material is also a gold mine of information about the themes and motifs that captivate the intended audience.
Even a brief survey of three notable arrivals reveals something solid, if unsurprising. Much of the material is about the dark vulnerabilities of youth. And, usually, it all starts with parental neglect or the impact of a parent’s cruel actions. There is a deeply poignant level of damage and insecurity in the youths on these shows.
The End of the F***ing World (now streaming Netflix Canada) is back for a second season. Made by Channel 4 in Britain, it got international attention and acclaim through Netflix, and that attention is what made a second series possible. Both seasons are small masterpieces of deadpan dark humour and, simultaneously, deeply shrewd. In the first season – you can binge-watch both seasons of 30-minute episodes and be dazzled by its strange, unsettling whimsy – two 17-year-old teenage runaways Alyssa (Jessica Barden) and James (Alex Lawther) are on a crime-filled road trip across Britain. James is convinced he’s a psychopath and his hobby is killing animals. This part of his soul emerged after his mother died by suicide right in front of him.
His initial impulse is to kill Alyssa, a young woman who says she is already “dead inside.” That isn’t true, but she is very damaged, probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the second season we meet a new character Bonnie (Naomi Ackie), who is definitely capable of murder. Why? Well, her mother bullied her into academic excellence rather than care for her emotionally. Bonnie is mentally ill and when she realizes that Alyssa might be responsible for killing the man she loves – a monster of a man – she sets out for revenge. It’s an astonishingly nihilistic series, gorgeously made, and for all its macabre humour, very moving.
Daybreak (recently arrived on Netflix) is satire, but while it is loaded with mocking humour, it, too, has great poignancy. Interestingly, almost the first thing the main character Josh (Colin Ford) says, is, “I wanna show you how sweet the end of the world actually is.” In this case, most of California has been hit by some atomic apocalypse. Adults have tuned into zombies, or “ghoulies”, as the show calls them. One very funny twist is that the ghoulies wander around repeating the last thought they had when the apocalypse struck. Thus there’s a flesh-eating mom muttering, over and over, “Ten per cent off the pants at Lululemon.”
Meanwhile, the surviving adolescents have descended into a tribal world that reflects high school. There are the jocks, the nerds and the followers of the Kardashians. Josh is a loner. He just wants to stay alive and find his girlfriend from before the mayhem. He’s adept and skilful at staying alive. And, interestingly, he’d just moved to California from Toronto.
When he explains to a gang of violent jocks what skills he has, one asks, “Who are you, McGyver?” Josh says, “No, I’m Canadian.” In flashback scenes to his pre-mayhem life, we see Josh explain to his girlfriend that his mom worked from morning to night, he rarely saw her and she parented by leaving him Post-it notes. The upshot of this scathingly funny satire is that most teenagers are vicious animals but the adults are even worse because they are uncaring about their kids and created the mess that is this disordered, terrible world.
Atypical (back for a third season on Netflix) is the least gloomy and most compassionate of the batch. The central character is Sam (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old who is on the autism spectrum. Now he’s just gone from high school to college and is finding out how superficial his new friends are, among other revelations. But the show has subtly shifted focus to his parents. His mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is wonderful here) and dad (Michael Rapaport) are trying to figure out how to stay married now that Sam no longer needs their fullest attention. It’s a very, very delicate balance. While the drama has compassion for them, it is clear that it’s the teenagers who have the more humane and luminous sense of what is right and what is morally wrong.
As a batch of shows, the three present a strange, often terrifying and sometimes touching picture of youth. Such grim vulnerabilities abound and such anger at older generations seethes. It’s not so much a gold mine as it is a glimpse of hellish rage.
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