In the US: Available on Hulu
In the UK: Wednesdays, 9pm, Syfy
With Marvel superhero shows now spread far and wide across the US programming spectrum, ABC, Fox, Netflix, Freeform and FX all carrying at least one show apiece, it was easy to predict that Marvel’s Runaways might be different to people’s expectations, as each service needs to distinguish itself from the others. The question was how.
Airing on streaming service Hulu, it has a relatively simple premise: a bunch of California school kids discover that their parents are supervillains who sacrifice young runaways in a weird sci-fi ritual; said kids then have to stop their parents’ nefarious without letting on that they know their secret. Luckily, the kids turn out to have all manner of powers: one’s an engineering genius who designs a special pair of weaponised gloves; another has a pet dinosaur that obeys her commands; a third seems to be a floaty light angel; a fourth has super strength; a fifth has a staff that gives her magic witch powers; and the sixth… is good with computers.
So far, so seemingly predictable. However, in the hands of Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (The OC, Gossip Girl), season one of this Hulu drama was a more surprising affair, designed to appeal to both kids and their parents. The show effectively played off the two generations against one another, both on-screen and within the audience.
The kids’ storylines showed off their black and white, developing morality, while love affairs aplenty, gay and straight, were soapy and simple, full of fierce, childish emotions and minor slights becoming major incidents.
Meanwhile, the parents in the audience could enjoy the more nuanced storyline of the adults. In a minor stroke of casting genius, many of the adults were played by stars of TV shows older viewers would have watched in the early 2000s, including James Marsters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Julian McMahon from Charmed, Annie Wersching from 24, and Kevin Wiseman from Alias. Here, relationships are complicated, true love does die, people marry for other reasons, and transgressions can be overlooked, while supervillainy may be caused by degenerative brain diseases, traumatic childhoods, blackmail, progressive compromises or simply a desire to protect your kids.
Runaways – season two
When we left our teenage rebels at the end of season one, they had finally defied their parents to run away after the stealthy cold war had become a hot war. What would become on them as they went out into the world on their own? Would they survive? What would their parents do? And what would they do to their parents?
Unfortunately, as we learned with both The OC and Gossip Girl before, Schwartz and Savage can do a great first season, but tend to lose their way in their second season – and Marvel’s Runaways is no different.
Ran away from them
Season two’s basic problem is that it doesn’t quite know what to do with the kids once they’ve run away. Or the plots that it’s built up.
So as well as spending about one episode on the kids dealing with homelessness before giving them a top secret underground mansion headquarters to live in instead, the show allows the kids to keep their arsenal, not really worry about how you look after a carnivorous dinosaur when you’re on the run and have no money, and generally go wherever they feel like, despite being wanted fugitives. The rest of the time, the kids are basically at each other’s throats, having childish arguments or deep and meaningful relationship discussions. Any real sense of backstory informing their decisions seems to have disappeared, with plot developments being the main motivation for anything transpiring.
Everything’s also a bit less imperilling than it could be, too, since the kids do spend a lot of time in contact with their parents. They go, they meet them, they have chats, they run away again, sometimes they move back in with them – for a show called Runaways, there ain’t half a lack of running away. Floaty angel girl even goes off to meet Big Bad McMahon from time to time so she can have flying lessons from him.
A series lowlight that initially seemed like a highlight is the arrival of another seemingly super strong Latino for younger super strong Latina to bond with and maybe be related to, but as with most of the season sub-plots, this lasts about three episodes before being put to bed and having no real effect.
Meanwhile, the adults are really just supervillains now. There is a golden moment of relief in the first few episodes as Ryan Sands’ ‘brother from the hood’ returns and turns out to be anything but a gangster stereotype, but that’s about it. Otherwise, it turns out that two wives are evil schemers with Tough Love ambitions for their children, some of which involve murder. James Marsters spends most of the season alternating between standing in the middle of the room with his eyes closed and walking around a bizarre recreation of 1970s New York that feels more like the 1950s.
Wersching’s efforts to demolish her Scientology-esque church also feel a bit pointless and badly implemented. She could just appear on TV or YouTube and release a video saying it’s nonsense before taking it apart; instead, she ends up in reprogramming and meeting with her long lost mother.
Worse still, the big, gripping plot of the first season ends up getting fixed midway through the season, while simultaneously writing out the show’s big asset, Julian McMahon, and removing all nuance from the adult characters. Possessed by aliens, Marsters and co now become true supervillains who send lethal drones after their own kids. And California is safe, with the buried spaceship discovered in the first season no longer a threat.
Season two does have some merits, even if it has squandered those it inherited from the first season. Lyrica Okano’s Gothy Wiccan continues to impress and the developments in her character are some of the season’s highlights. There’s far more action than there was in the first season and an attempt by corrupt cops sent by their parents to invade their new home is impressively repelled by the kids. The theme that runs throughout the season of the kids growing up and their Manichaean morality needing to discover shades of grey is also realised well.
There are flashes of humour and decent ideas throughout, too, and a flashback episode to when the alien Julian McMahon was still his original host – a specialist surgeon from Melbourne in 1957 – entertains purely by giving McMahon a chance to do posh English instead of his natural Australian accent as you might have expected.
However, the smarts, the double-layered, double-audienced storylines, the resonances and the charm have all but gone from the show, leaving behind something far more hokey, soapy and childish. If there’s a third season of the show, I doubt I’ll be back for it.