In the US: Tuesdays, Hulu
In the UK: Acquired by Syfy. Starts Wednesday, April 18, 9pm
Top-tier reviewers like me adore making analogies and ‘meets’ to help readers quickly understand what a show is like: “It’s Fawlty Towers meets I, Claudius“, “It’s Friends meets Black Hawk Down“, “It’s The Full Monty meets Top Gear“. You can probably imagine shows like that already, even though I’ve not named them and as far as I know, they don’t exist. But you can still imagine them.
Sometimes, that’s not helpful though. If I said Marvel’s Runaways is “Gossip Girl meets The Breakfast Club meets the second season of DC Legend’s of Tomorrow“, that’s pretty accurate but I’m not sure you’d be any wiser for the analogy. In fact, you’d probably be baffled. My bad.
So, let’s take this slowly. There are six kids, now in High School, who 10 years ago were great friends through their parents, who are among the country’s great and the good. However, following some tragic ‘incidents’ that occurred back then, the friends no longer speak to one another and have all been affected in different ways. Now one of them, Rhenzy Feliz, wants to get the gang back together and Magnificent Seven-like, he goes to them each in turn. There’s goth Lyrica Okano; social justice warrior Ariela Barer; lacrosse player Gregg Sulkin; the younger, more positive Allegra Acosta; and pretty church zealot Virginia Gardner.
With a bit of emotional blackmail, he succeeds. Unfortunately, the newly reunited group soon discover that they have far greater concerns: their parents, who seem to be getting up to all manner of weird things in each other basements. So weird and even illegal, one would have to surmise that they’re actually… super villains. But it turns out that each of the kids might have super-skills of their own that they’re just growing into. If they unite together they might be able to stop their parents from doing some truly awful things – if only they knew what those were…
Shades of Grey
Marvel’s Runaways is based on the comic of the same name created by Brian K Vaughn and while obviously, you can imagine many possible variations of the “my parents are super-villains” idea, Vaughn’s work has been adapted by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage of all people. If you’re not familiar with their names, they’ve been at least partly and sometimes even fully responsible for shows like The OC and Gossip Girl, and Runaways is actually surprisingly similar in pretty much every way imaginable to those shows, from the tone through the settings to the production values, with its ultra-cool soundtrack and Hidden Palms-like titles.
Certainly, you could fail to realise for about the first 30 minutes of the first episode that this had anything to do with a comic book. Instead, it’s very similar to that initial episode of Gossip Girl: there’s a group of friends, there’s a secret reason they’ve all fallen out – will we ever learn what it is? There are the usual secret desires that cannot be spoken, there are love triangles, there are high-school cliques and there is high-school meanness. It’s also smartly written, addresses hot topics like date-rape and makes the teenage characters fittingly childish yet also likeable and multi-layered.
The final 15 minutes then gives us our first chunk of comic book fun before we get to the second episode, which is appropriately entitled Rewind, as it basically does the first episode again but from the point of view of the kids’ evil parents, as we learn what was actually going on the whole time. If you are going to watch Runaways, you will need to watch both episodes, since they’re almost inseparable and you can’t understand or get a feel for the show without the two.
As with Gossip Girl again, Schwartz and Savage are smart enough to know that the parents’ plotlines can be as interesting as the kids’, even to kids but certainly to us older viewers. They also know not to paint in simple shades of black and white, but in shades of grey – indeed, the theme tune of the show sounds ever so almost completely identical to Visage’s ‘Fade to Grey’:
So we get various levels of intrigue, hints at Faustian pacts and general portraits of people who have made morally difficult/unconscionable decisions to obtain power, but who don’t necessarily like what they’ve done. Primarily, we have James Marsters (Buffy, Angel) as Sulkin’s dad. He’s a tech genius who’s given the world artificial intelligence and is working on time machines and teleportation devices. He’s a crappy dad most of the time, but episode 4 ends up with a lovely moment of fatherly encouragement as he discovers his son shares his love of engineering.
Similarly, Brigid Brannagh and Kevin Weisman (Alias) play Barer’s parents as nerdy scientists who make their own brie and have genetically engineered a guard-dinosaur. They also adopted Acosta after her parents died. Is that because they felt guilty for some reason?
And we also have Annie Wersching (24) as the head of the “Scientology meets Christianity” church her daughter Gardner loves so much. She empowers people but she also has to groom converts to become sacrifices, and she doesn’t like it. And is there another reason she’s brought her daughter into the church and made her wear that bracelet all the time?
Despite the name, Runaways is in no hurry to run away. Indeed, despite various plot summaries on the Internet suggesting otherwise, the runaways aren’t the supervillains’ kids, but a whole different bunch of people.
Instead, it’s more interested in watching the kids learn about their parents without giving away what they know, the parents continuing to advance their nefarious plan, all while relationships develop and evolve. Indeed, episode three is mainly just flashback so that we learn how relationships have changed over the previous 10 years.
As far as superpowers go, while some characters reveal or discover their powers and super-skills within the first two episodes, by the end of the fourth, some haven’t revealed them at all or are only just beginning to investigate them. There are no big fights, just a sort of Cold War between two generations.
It took all of those four episodes for the show to really grow on me. Episodes one and two were good, episode three had its moments but was only okay, but it’s not until episode four that the show decides to have some fun as well, in between all the dire secrets.
What’s going to be interesting is how long the quality can be maintained. Early in Gossip Girl‘s run, Schwartz and Savage declared that they’d understood where they’d gone wrong with The OC – that they’d burned through secrets and plots too quickly, meaning that as the show continued, they ended up having to pair up people and create new sub-plots, even if none of it made no sense, simply so there were new plots. They weren’t going to do that with Gossip Girl, they claimed.
That lasted all of two seasons at most, before the whole thing felt apart in season 3.
So the question is whether Schwartz and Savage know better this time. It certainly seems so, so far, since they really are eking out the secrets this time. Indeed, one of the questions lingering over the first three episodes was whether they ever going to reveal anything at all, even enough to give us a hint about what the secrets might be. Maybe a shorter run and the source material itself will rein them in. Here’s hoping.
Marvel’s Runaways probably the best Hulu show I’ve seen apart from The Handmaid’s Tale, and is well made enough that it could run on Netflix or anywhere else without difficulty. It’s also a welcome tonic to the CW’s Arrow-verse shows and provides a much better “coming of superhero age” story than The Gifted, without being as utterly left-field as Legion.
If you can cope with a young cast, a moderately slow, superhero story that’s more about character than action, and like a bit of soapiness with a hinge of Fringe to it, then Runaways going to be for you.
Barrometer rating: 2