I’m going to start this review with a confession: I’m not an expert on the Marvel universe. I can’t weigh the pros and cons of all the various iterations of The Punisher. I can’t name all The X-Men. I can’t debate if Luke Cage or Jessica Jones is the better Marvel Netflix series.
But that’s actually a good thing when it comes to reviewing Marvel’s Runaways. TV series should be able to invite the audience in assuming that they know nothing about the subject matter. And let me tell you what I am an expert in—teen soap operas. And so are executive producers Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz, who together have created The O.C. and Gossip Girl. The duo knows how to make TV fun with inside jokes, witty dialogue, self-deprecating humor, pop-culture references and compelling characters. Marvel’s Runaways is poised to be the perfect hybrid of adolescent melodrama and the sci-fi/superhero genre.
The six teens at the center of the story are straight out of The Breakfast Club. There’s handsome high school jock Chase (Gregg Sulkin), popular beautiful girl Karolina (Virginia Gardner), geeky nerd Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), and social outcast Gert (Ariela Barer). Gert’s younger sister Molly (Allegra Acosta) and troubled Nico (Lyrica Okano) round out the gang. I like them all, but I’m partial to Gert, who when Chase tells her not to be a pussy responds, “I resent the usage of the word to imply weakness.” The six friends grew apart after the death of Nico’s younger sister, Amy. But now, two years after Amy’s passing, they find themselves drawn back together.
Schwartz and Savage also excel at making sure the parents on their series have lives, too. Here the show takes it one step further. The second episode shows the events of the premiere from the parents’ perspective. But wait, there’s more: The parents are the villains of the story. They can’t be trusted, and it’s up to their offspring to figure out what’s going on. It’s a great play on the age-old truth that parents don’t understand you, behave in ways you don’t understand and, when you’re are a teen, can be seen as kind of evil.
Let’s pause for a moment to talk about the A++++ casting of the parents. It’s a little like the casting directors thought to themselves, “Hmmm… who are actors in the supernatural/syfy genre who people adore but who we haven’t seen in a while?” And voila! We have Kevin Weisman (Alias) as Molly and Gert’s dad, Dale, and James Marsters (Spike!!!) as Chase’s unforgiving father, Victor. He doesn’t have fangs here, but he’s still just as nefarious. “I also heard you got a C in Spanish. If you were really afraid of me you’d be getting an A,” he tells his son.
Add in Annie Wersching (24) as Karolina’s mom Leslie, the leader of a cult-like church; Kip Pardue (Remember the Titans) as Leslie’s clueless actor husband, Frank; Ever Carradine (The Handmaid’s Tale) as Chase’s seemingly fragile mother, Janet; and Brigid Brannagh (Army Wives) as Molly and Gert’s crunchy mom, Stacey, and the series is peppered with some fun and very welcome familiar faces. Brittany Ishibashi is an early standout as Nico’s take-no-prisoners mom, Tina, as are Ryan Sands and Angel Parker as Alex’s parents.
What’s off about the series is that there’s simultaneously a lot going on but also not enough. There’s the mystery of Amy’s death. The strange group known as Pride that all the parents are a part of. (Ostensibly it’s volunteer charity organization, but if that were the case we wouldn’t have a show, now would we?) The secretive animals Molly and Gert’s parents are creating in their basement. The evil mastermind lab Chase’s dad spends all his time in. The past Alex’s parents are trying to leave behind. The religious organization (which certainly seems like a Scientology knock-off) that Karolina’s mom heads up. But none of these aspects come together quickly enough. A little mystery and confusion is good. But after watching the four episodes available for review, I’m still in the dark about far too much. Where the show suffers is in the sense of urgency. The first three episodes debut this week, and the remaining seven will unfold on a weekly basis. But the show is kind of acting like we can binge all ten episodes of the first season at once. The start is sloooow. Especially if, like me, you don’t know what the mystery is, what the kids will find, what powers they possess.
The other problem is the writing is far too convenient. The kids snoop around their parent’s private areas with ease. Leslie’s laptop is easily found and not password-protected. The files that are password-protected? Well, Alex easily cracks those. Shows like this always require a willing suspension of disbelief, but there’s a little too much of that going on here. The parents hold a secret meeting when all the kids are in the house. “They’re teenagers. The last thing they’re worried about is what their parents are doing,” Alex’s mom Catherine says.
But the foundation here is good, with potential teen romances (you have to have that!), the requisite angst, and enigmatic plot developments. The series just needs to take a hint from its title and pick up the pace.
Marvel’s Runaways premieres Tuesday, Nov. 21 on Hulu.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .