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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Netflix’s sci-fi drama Between makes a risky bid for the YA audience

Illustration for article titled Netflix’s sci-fi drama Between makes a risky bid for the YA audience
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Netflix has made valiant attempts to be a network unbound by such limiting concepts as brand and demographics. Its original programming spans a wide spectrum of content, from high-minded prestige dramas, broad comedies, and even chintzy kids’ shows. In theory, every new, wildly different show Netflix tosses to the binge-watching wolves should take the streaming service one step closer to being a content platform capable of releasing series as diverse as the members of its massive subscriber base. In practice, Netflix’s original programming is evaluated by pay-cable standards, a framework put in place back when it went straight-to-series with a double-order of House Of Cards. Those expectations make it difficult for a show like Between, Netflix’s new youth-skewing sci-fi drama, to make an impression with the audience. The phrase “Netflix Original Series” may not mean something specific, but it means something, and Between falls outside that definition.

The series is set in Pretty Lake, a quaint Anytown as generic as its name, where a plague begins to spread through the population. The plague is equally generic: The unidentified disease seizes its victims suddenly, without any outward signs or symptoms, causing them to spit up blood with the consistency of pudding as their veins bulge out of their skin. The pilot shows its ensemble of high-school-age characters, anchored by pregnant teen Wiley (Jennette McCurdy), becoming increasingly anxious about the disease as their loved ones and teachers die suddenly around them. The wary federal government orders a town-wide quarantine for Pretty Lake, and a militarized border is erected around it, trapping everyone inside. Paranoia ensues due to the plague’s seemingly random infection patterns, until computer wunderkind Adam (Jesse Carere) deploys his hacking abilities and discovers the secret: The disease is only killing people over the age of 21.

Between’s premise makes it better suited to a YA-friendly network like MTV or ABC Family, given that the disease leaves behind a cast of young people so telegenic the series could as easily be called The Hottie Zone. The show’s running time also calls it out for scrutiny; Between’s episodes run around 44 minutes, the length of a network series. There’s an explanation: Between grew out of a production partnership between Netflix and Canadian network City TV. The first season consists of only six episodes, and unlike a typical Netflix series, the episodes will go live once weekly rather than all at once. The result is as far from the Netflix experience as possible, both in concept and execution.

Those peculiarities would be easier to swallow were Between a better television show. Jon Cassar, an Emmy winner for his work on 24, shot the handsome pilot, but the material doesn’t rise to the occasion. The pilot doesn’t offer enough of a hook to pull the audience along, mostly because it begins too early in the process to offer a glimpse of what Between really has to offer. The show is described as a survivalist drama focused on the day-to-day lives of young people trapped in a town without adults. But instead of cutting straight to how the characters navigate their drastically changed circumstances, creator Michael McGowan picks up with Pretty Lake when its residents have just began dying off. The drum rolling feels superfluous and makes Between difficult to invest in. The pilot does the work of introducing the ensemble of characters, but spends so little time with each of them that when it builds to a cliffhanger in which one of those characters is imperiled, it doesn’t feel any more important than the frequent deaths of the adult characters.

If Between was streaming in its entirety from the day of its premiere, the pilot might be enough to warrant watching a second episode, if only because auto-play is activated and the remote is all the way across the room. But without a tantalizing hook to lure its viewers, nor the illusion of momentum that binge-watching creates, Between will be a tough sell. The series presumably cost Netflix very little, thanks to the City partnership, but putting its imprimatur on a show that meets nearly none of the standards subscribers associate with it could cost dearly in the long run.