It may be the ancient Norwegian term for the end times, but in a post-Thor world, naming your series Ragnarok still feels like a direct challenge to Marvel’s most successful outing with the god of thunder. Netflix’s newest series is a six-part Scandinavian drama about angsty teenagers in a small town who just might have unwittingly stumbled into the apocalyptic battle between gods and giants, and the pairing fits together smoothly. Turns out, the outsized emotional states of teens actually perfectly mirror the larger-than-life concerns of Norse legend, something Thor: Ragnarok expressed by making the Hulk essentially a big green adolescent. Still, the comics giant needn’t worry: Nothing about the show challenges Marvel’s mantle as keeper of the most entertaining story with this particular title.
It moves quickly, but Ragnarok’s biggest problem is that it keeps stumbling into Twilight-style storytelling, alternating dour and portentous drama with unintentionally comical interludes. This is never more apparent than halfway through the second episode, when the teens of the small rural town of Edda, Norway come together at a school dance. It’s a more somber than usual endeavor, due to a classmate’s shocking death the previous weekend. One of the kids, Fjor (Herman Tømmeraas), commanders the DJ booth and puts on a strangely sludgy hard-rock tune, at which point he and his sister’s eyes turn yellow, the scene segues into slow-motion, and the obviously more-than-human siblings begin… dancing. As weirdly and as self-serious as possible. It’s a genuinely funny moment, though the show doesn’t seem to realize it. It’s not quite vampire baseball, but it’s not far off.
The story is simple enough: Awkward and isolated teen Magne (David Stakston) and his sardonic younger brother Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli) return to Edda, the town they were born in, when their mother gets a job working for Jutul Industries, the town’s corporate overlord of sorts. Once they’re there, a strange woman passes her hand over Magne’s face and seems to awaken something within him. He becomes superhumanly strong, no longer needs his glasses, and gets odd abilities, like the power to sense impending weather changes. Which is good, because the weather in Edda is strange: Climate change is wreaking havoc on the town and its natural beauty (it really is a stunning location), and of course, Jutul Industries’ sinister corporate behavior seems to be a contributing factor. Magne becomes convinced Jutul, and the family behind it, is up to no good. So in between navigating the challenges of a new school and social system, nursing a crush on good-hearted fellow student Gry (Emma Bones), and exploring his unexpected new abilities, the large blond Norseman tries to unravel the mystery behind the ruthless act of violence that ends the first episode. At one point he throws a hammer very far; if you can’t yet guess who he’s supposed to incarnate, we can’t help you.
Characterizations are often thinly sketched or clumsily explained in Ragnarok. Magne, depicted in nearly every scene early on as a lovable lunk who wouldn’t hurt a fly, apparently has a bad temper and can get violent. But we only know this because we’re told so by his mother during a school meeting with the principal, despite no supporting evidence shown—before or after, really. The Jutul family—a pair of icy, controlling parents and their too-cool-for-school kids—make for simplistic villains, though Fjor becomes more conflicted and three-dimensional as the series progresses. And Magne and Laurits’ mother (Henriette Steenstrup), like many of the citizens of Edda, never really develops beyond a faint initial impression. It’s a surprising failing, given creator Adam Price’s oeuvre: Anyone who’s seen Borgen, his masterful drama of political intrigue, would be surprised at the blunt-force handling of these characters.
Then again, the show certainly doesn’t want for matching style with subject matter. An ancient and ongoing clash between gods and giants isn’t exactly a fount of nuance, and as the curtain is pulled back on just who some of the people in the town really are, a broad theatricality becomes increasingly appropriate. Although it’s explained Edda was the last town in Norway to become Christian and give up faith in the old gods, it’s soon apparent not everyone abandoned the old religion. An elderly cashier serves as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the events as they unfold. (“The hero’s journey has begun,” she helpfully informs Magne’s mother early on in episode two.) And when your villain strips naked in order to hunt, kill, and then rip out the heart of a caribou to consume it while roaring atop a cliff, it’s clear that understatement isn’t a top priority.
Ragnarok trots out tricks that were already dated in the late ’90s, and the broad retro gambits alternate between campy fun and eye-rollingly hoary. Laurits makes an attempt to join the cool kids’ clique, and the slo-mo depiction of him with a new wardrobe and Flock Of Seagulls-esque hairdo, strutting down the school’s hallway, set to cheesy rock riffs, is daffily entertaining. But when Magne is invited to the Jutuls’ for a dinner party, the resulting dramatics devolve into groan-worthy silliness. (The climactic conflict is an arm-wrestling match.) The show keeps things moving, so it never gets too bogged down in teen angst or ponderous speechifying. But by the penultimate episode, viewers will be wishing Ragnarok would hurry up and resolve its central plot, or at least give a better reason to come back for more. Even at a mere six episodes (five of which were available for review), it feels like a two-hour YA movie expanded past its breaking point. Maybe that Twilight saga comparison is deserved, after all.