“I can’t believe we have to go to school after someone just died,” a kid in Jinn says at one point, which is both the most teen drama thing that’s ever been said and one of the least interesting aspects of Netflix’s first Arabic-language original series.
The five-episode season—from creators Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya (who also directs most of the series), Rajeev Dassani, and Elan Dassani—was shot on location in Jordan, and it looks great when using that to its advantage. Some stunning aerial photography of cliffs and ruins supplements the standard classrooms, staircase conversations, family homes and nondescript in-betweens that genre fans expect. And thanks to a field trip to Petra—that of course goes horribly wrong—the story of teens getting entangled in a conflict between spirits with ulterior motives can often look far more novel than its narrative actually is.
Like a schlocky version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, a mysterious accident befalls a dickish bully, and the fallout seriously impacts the rest of the school. But were jinn involved (spirits that, rather than angels or devils, can be every shade between good and evil), or was it just an everyday horror? This tragedy amplifies the tensions already in place among the cliques—everyone’s pettier, pushier, and definitely hornier—while further divides open between friend groups as two classmates both find strange new companions.
Nerdy, bullied Yassin (Sultan Alkhail, who has serious, lanky Bill Skarsgård vibes) meets Vera (Aysha Shahaltough), while cool girl Mira (Salma Malhas, the most convincing cast member) runs into a hot magical creature of her own after hearing strange whispery voices like she was carrying the One Ring on a doomed quest. It’s easy to appreciate the realistic casting though, whether it’s Mira’s BFF Layla (Ban Halaweh), Layla’s superstitious cousin Hassan (Zaid Zoubi), or one of the bully’s lackeys. These are high schoolers that look, act, and talk like drama-drenched teens.
That helps to sell the Twilight of it all, as the series already suffers from the tonal whiplash of going back and forth between relationship talk and Hassan’s shoehorned mythological exposition. There’s still a bit more to it than just Mira hooking up with a supernatural hottie, but, yes, that’s definitely part of it. Played by Hamzeh Okab in all his jaw-flexing, floppy-haired hearthrobbiness, the hottie in question, Kerasquioxian (Keras for short), can disappear at will, as well as do a little Force-choke that definitely isn’t used for the thirsty purposes to which fan fiction will soon apply it. In fact, it’s often pretty funny because of how abrupt and out of left field that power is every time it comes up.
Jinn is a relatively tame show, despite its abrupt and violent beginning, that is less interested in the supernatural world and more about how teenage problems can seem almost supernatural. Mood changes, awakened passions, fickle relationships—all of these make a little more sense when explained through otherworldly elements like magic, vampires, and jinn. So when the Faustian relationship inevitably arises for those who have plenty of reason to be mad at the world, like Yassin, it’s easy to understand the seductive appeal and Keras’ drive to stop it.
But sloppy TV writing, where things simply seem to solve themselves or become clear whenever it’s convenient, undermines some of the intrinsic links between the rebellious teens and the volatile spirits. That’s too bad, since the rest of the drama is written with a casual ease that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence. The high schoolers all have histories with each other, and that comes up naturally in otherwise repetitive conversations.
Of note, apart from the rest of the soapy, hurried show, the Jordan-set series’ feminism is an imperfect but impressive factor. Mira talks back to the traditionally masculine men in her life that try to control her—her ex-boyfriend, her father, or Keras—and pursues objectives she deems worthy after coming to these conclusions herself. At first blush, this might not seem especially noteworthy. But this conflict is an element extrapolated from Jordanian musalsalat (telenovelas for the Arab world, basically) that have been a modern staple for a country where, despite recent improvements, “a sizeable gap exists for women between constitutional rights and acceptable social norms” and where “honor killings” still afflict multiple women each year. The friction between traditional and modern gender roles is felt not only in its broader echoing of Western supernatural romance, but in its specific elements of female rebellion, autonomy, and desire.
That ideology is just one exciting part of a show that, since it was so brief, feels like Netflix only just dipping a toe into unfamiliar waters. With only five episodes, the good and the bad of Jinn are distilled to their most potent dosages. Effect shots are super campy, but not in an unfun way. But overly convenient plot points, hurried storytelling, and a reluctance to get too crazy with the lore prevent Jinn from becoming a full-blown oddball phenomenon like Riverdale. It ends up at a bananas cliffhanger where nothing has been resolved and the world is opened up to much more (and much stranger) jinn drama, but it would have been nice to get at least a little bit of closure for this season’s relatively meager offerings. Still, the episodes move fast, the story is engaging (if only for the initial WTF factor), and the well-cast group of kids sell it with just the right amount of scene-chewing. The magic in Jinn might not be entirely new, but the fresh ground it covers is still worth exploring.
Jinn premieres Thursday, June 13th on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a TV and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.