“Get ‘em while they’re young” might well be the motto of Netflix at the moment. Sticking with the marketing adage that if you get youths hooked on your product they are yours for life, the service has recently churned out teen-aimed content.
From the satiric American Vandal, to the controversial 13 Reasons Why, to the even more controversial Insatiable, and many other less high-profile series and movies, it’s a deluge.
But there is something else going on. Thematically, many of the series are about the same thing – young women’s autonomy, specifically autonomy over their bodies. It’s also noteworthy that two shows on other streaming services, Facebook Watch’s Sacred Lies and YouTube Premium’s Impulse, both deal with the very same issue. This isn’t so much a content trend as it is a signifier that there are lots more women writing, directing and producing content these days.
The Innocents, which recently arrived on Netflix here, has all the core ingredients and while sometimes opaque, evolves into a fascinating and beautifully made drama about star-crossed lovers that is, under the surface, all about female independence, autonomy and losing control. The central figure is June (Sorcha Groundsell, who is wonderful), who we meet on her 16th birthday. The central statement, made by an older man in the second episode is, “She doesn’t know who or what she is yet.”
At first, the eight-part series seems to be a teen love story: Girl in rural England plans to run away with her boyfriend on her 16th birthday to escape a grim, controlling dad. That is indeed what unfolds as June drives off in the night with her very sweet chap Harry (Percelle Ascott). They haven’t got far when there is an attempted abduction, by mysterious men from Norway, to lure June away with the promise of a message from her mother, who has been gone for years and June isn’t sure why.
Meanwhile in Norway, various women working in some sort of commune have testy conversations about their lives while avoiding any details. There is also an older guy, a scientist named Ben (played by Guy Pearce), who is studying people who seem to morph into another body, including June’s mother.
And like her mother, June, too, is a shapeshifter who can inhabit another body when something is triggered. This is something she first discovers when she tries to do the right thing and check on the man that she and Harry left injured on the road after the attempted abduction. It’s not giving too much way – it’s in episode one – to say that June is disconcerted to find she is now, in bodily form, a large bearded man from Norway.
There is so much going on in The Innocents (created by Hania Elkington and Simon Duric) that sometimes it can seem a jumble of stories. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story to begin, as June and Harry are so terribly, innocently, in love. It’s a chase-story since various parents and others are looking for June and Harry. It’s about family responsibility too, since June’s brother has agoraphobia and never leaves his room, and Harry’s dad has dementia. Everybody is trying to take care of somebody, but when the two teenagers abscond, they are abandoning responsibility. Their own love affair transcends everything and the series is touching on the selfishness of youth and the narcissism of young love.
The sci-fi and supernatural aspects, as they become more obvious and key ingredients in the plot, are handled with pragmatism rather than predictable soaring into the fantastical and the gory. Everything is grounded in June’s reaction to the potency of her power and her shock at the dynamism of her body. She doesn’t know or understand herself, in a very adolescent-discovery way. And as for Harry, he certainly realizes he doesn’t understand the young woman he loves and, in particular, her body.
The Innocents is not the first series or movie to use all manner of supernatural cover stories to traverse the angst of adolescence – teenage vampire and witch stories abound – but it is different in its perceptiveness and connection to the ordinary, not to the mythic or paranormal.
It would be an aspersion to suggest that the current crop of dramas about young women and their autonomy over they bodies is a TV trend. (HBO’s adaptation of Sharp Objects might fall into the category too.) Netflix might be banking on gaining young viewers but some of its content is part of an ideological evolution. And about time, too.