A lot of the buzz surrounding Netflix’s latest TV original, The Innocents, seems focused on comparing the show to Stranger Things. From a corporate perspective the comparison is smart. It’s a straightforward way to reel in an audience that might otherwise shy away from genre shows with sci-fi influences. Outside that corporate perspective though, the comparison is absolutely ridiculous. The Innocents, an eight-part series created and written by Simon Duric and Hania Elkington, is nothing like its streaming service counterpart. There’s no 1980s nostalgia, no weird alien monsters, and the show boasts a multi-layered approach to storytelling that Stranger Things wishes it could pull off.
If you’re looking for comparison points and influences, The Innocents crosses Scandinavian-noir shows like The Killing with the more emotional, slight sci-fi of something like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Its central story, of a young girl who runs away with her boyfriend, only to discover that she has the power to shapeshift—a trait inherited from her mother—is a character-driven romance above all else. If you watched the trailer and are expecting a sci-fi show that focuses on the mystery of a doctor deviously experimenting on teenagers, you’re in for a surprise. Thankfully, it’s a welcome surprise, as The Innocents moves beyond its genre trappings to craft something more emotionally nuanced.
The season begins with a pretty simple setup. It’s the eve of June’s 16th birthday, and her life is about to change. Her father, John, is moving them to some secluded place in Scotland. We’re not sure why, but we know that he’s raising June on his own; her brother, Ryan, lives in a small house on the property, stuck inside due to his agoraphobia. The impending move isn’t the life-changing moment though. Rather, June has plans to run away with her boyfriend, Harry, that night.
The first episode does a wonderful job of setting the stage for the seven episodes that follow. It’s a tight 45 minutes in an era of bloated Netflix runtimes. The Innocents doesn’t mess around, immediately establishing its supernatural tone when Harry and June barely thwart a kidnapping, which leads to June discovering that she can shapeshift into other people through skin-to-skin contact. The final shot of the premiere, of a terrified Harry being forced to look in the mirror and see that the hulking kidnapper (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson as Steinar, because henchmen only need one name) they escaped from is actually June, acts as perfect cliffhanger, a climax that makes it easy to click through to the next episode.
The premiere is intriguing enough, but what’s fascinating about The Innocents, and ultimately makes it such a worthwhile watch, is the way it slowly unravels its story without feeling like it’s holding something back. The mysteries that populate the season—who is Guy Pearce’s Halvorson, and what are his motivations when it comes to curing shapeshifters? Will June be reunited with her mother, and will she want to be “cured” as well? What is John hiding from his family?—are only lenses through which to explore the messiness and anxiety that comes with being a teenager and trying to find your way in the world.
The Innocents isn’t coy in the way many mystery shows are, willfully holding back information to the point that it actively works against the natural flow of the storytelling. Instead, the mysteries are constructed in a way that informs the central relationship. What begins as a tight focus on Harry and June discovering her power and running away from the various people chasing them slowly shifts into something with a broader scope, as every character arc is fleshed out.
What that means, in the long run, is that The Innocents isn’t willing to sacrifice character for mystery. As June’s shapeshifting escalates in strange and terrifying ways, the story expands to reveal the motivations of nearly every character. To say there are no good or bad guys here might be a little too far-fetched, but the show is certainly working with the idea that Halvorson, John, and Steinar all have understandable reasons for wanting to protect June, even if their ideas about what that means are different. In that way, The Innocents keeps viewers on their toes, refusing to pack its characters into tidy boxes with simplistic labels.
By giving those characters and their arcs room to breathe, the show’s thematic elements are allowed to come to the surface: Motherhood, what it means to be a woman in a world where you’re often reduced to an object, and the never-ending process of self-discovery anchor the sci-fi elements and add real depth to the developing relationship between Harry and June. The Innocents doesn’t always hold together—it can be a little on the nose at times, and a few of the situations Harry and June get themselves into feel like distracting side stories—but it does offer up a unique blend of genres and influences. It’s John Green meets a more modern version of Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think, and for the majority of its first season it’s a compelling, moving contemplation of what it means to reckon with who you are.