At no point did I ever expect to say The Boys was the best thing I’ve seen on TV all year, especially given that it’s been promoted with clips putting the focus on shocking acts of superheroes behaving badly. But the reality is The Boys is the first true surprise of 2019, walking a careful line between Robocop and The X-Files to deliver eight jaw-dropping hours of TV.
Based on Garth Ennis’ bloodsoaked comic book satire of the same name, Amazon’s The Boys takes place in a world where superheroes are modern celebrities. Thanks to a partnership with the ironically Amazon-like corporate juggernaut Vought International, over 200 supers bring in billions a year from movies, commercials, and every endorsement that comes within reach. When a superpowered being behaves a badly, Vought is there to pick up the pieces, sometimes of people’s families. The world we see in The Boys is a savagely cynical place, full of sociopathic superheroes, conspiracies, staggering violence, and debauchery.
At the center of the story is Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), a down-on-his-luck loser still living with his dad and mourning the loss of his girlfriend in a superhero-related accident. When the system ignores his quest for justice, a man named Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) enters his life offering a solution. Butcher hates superheroes, and with the help of Hughie and a few friends, he plans to put the capes in their place once and for all.
Discussing the finer details of The Boys plot is tricky, in part because of how much of the story has changed from the source material. Whether you’ve read every issue or never heard of the series, you’ll be walking into The Boys blind. While some of its best moments are taken directly from the books, they’re often remixed into entirely new scenes. You’ll never look at a neonatal ward the same way again.
But you also don’t need to be a superhero fan to fall in love with The Boys. Similarly to how Game of Thrones made swords and sorcery cool again for average Joes, The Boys has surprisingly broad appeal. Superheroes have become so culturally ubiquitous that even if you’ve never picked up a book you know enough of the basics to enjoy the jokes. Oddly, part of its broad appeal is due to just how much it’s been toned down from its source material.
It might be hard to imagine that a show which features a woman exploding in a cloud of blood, bone, and organs within the first five minutes as softened, but of course, most shows aren’t based on one of the most violent comics of all time. The series was originally published by DC Comics until they eventually balked at its horrific content, leaving publisher Dynamite to finish its run. For comic fans, the idea of this title ever hitting TV screens would have been absurd ten years ago.
One of the biggest issues with The Boys comic book is Ennis. Though Ennis has a special place in my heart as the creator of some of the best worlds in comics, he’s also a deeply nihilistic writer with a taste for neverending darkness, sexual violence, and pornographic cruelty. Amazon’s The Boys takes the sandbox he built and removes almost all of those worst instincts from it. But most importantly, it adds depth to the often one-note characters from the book. A great adaptation will make you look at works you’ve already consumed with brand new eyes, and while The Boys takes a series that could easily go over the top, and often does, it stops right before it becomes unpleasant. In doing so, it avoids the darkness trap of its source material. The superheroes in the comic are so evil they almost become a joke, always doing the most monstrous thing possible.
In the hands of showrunner Eric Kripke (Supernatural) everyone, no matter how evil, becomes a person. Each of The Boys—Hughie, Mothers Milk, Frenchie, and The Female—have their own inspiration for taking on these beings of unimaginable power. Unlike the comic, they don’t have their own obvious superpowers, forcing them to fight creatively rather than directly. But where the show takes a left turn is in the depth of its superheroes.
Each member of The Seven, essentially a stand-in for the Justice League, is given time to develop into a full character. You’ll discover their doubts, tragic histories, and deepest fears, adding an element of humanity that makes their war crimes against humanity hit that much harder. The only member left of The Seven who is worth saving is Starlight, the team’s newest addition. Starlight’s characterization is one of the biggest changes from the book, taking a woman who existed almost entirely as motivation for Hughie to fight, and building her into one of the series’ pillars.
The casting is inspired, particularly with Karl Urban as Butcher and Elisabeth Shue as Vought’s senior VP of hero management Madelyn Stillwell. Shue plays the part with a glowing corporate smile, never letting the horror around her get in the way of her company’s profits. It’s like watching a shark in sensible heels heard a pack of jackals.
What will shock you, however, isn’t the violence (though it is often shocking), but rather just how hilarious the show is. Over the course of its eight episodes, I found myself howling out loud every episode. Juggling a story this dark with such silly jokes takes finesse, but The Boys swings deftly from bawdy humor to genuine catharsis with ease.
The Boys certainly isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s deeply blasphemous (though nice about it!), graphically violent, and explicitly sexual. But beyond those standard features of TV-MA programming lies an unexpected amount of heart. Removing much of the vicious misogyny of the books has given it a warmer feeling, even though the specter of workplace sexual violence remains.
But walking away from the eight-episodes of Season One, I was left stunned by just how well everything here comes together. Yes, it’s crass as hell and one of the most violent shows on TV right now. But deep down, when you push past the gore, sex, and horrors committed to screen, the thing that sticks with you is the show’s emotional core. That, and a truly shocking final sequence that will leave fans of the comics reeling and new devotees Google searching for when Season Two will drop. If you’ve grown tired of superhero stories, here’s one last essential tale to take out your frustrations on people who wear capes.
The Boys premieres Friday, July 26th on Amazon.