Netflix’s ‘The Society’ Has Good News about Gen Z
By J.D. ECARMA
[WARNING: SPOILERS, SORRY. It was tough to write about this show without them. Season 1 is just 10 episodes, and this article can wait until after you watch for yourself if you like.]
If you’re looking for a teenage version of “The Walking Dead” … this isn’t it. I started Netflix’s “The Society” on a whim, expecting another survivalist landscape where zombies or the flu or some combination of both had ended civilization. Season 1 of “The Society” is better described as an elongated “Twilight Zone” episode where characters wake up in a new world where they’re the same but everything is different and they have no idea what or who is pulling the strings behind the curtain.
Classmates at the local high school return from an abruptly aborted school trip to find that everyone else in their town has disappeared. Once they realize they’re on their own, the teens must decide if they’re going to live in anarchy or find some way to recreate society with the supplies, resources and ideas they have.
While I’m curious to see what the explanatory plot twist will be, the writers’ decision to keep the characters in their own town with the basics of electricity and running water made for a more interesting show. “The Society,” a YA drama loosely inspired by Lord of the Flies, gets to take its characters beyond just basic animal survival. The teens aren’t continually worrying about their next meal, so they at least get to think about what it will look like when their current supply source (ransacking the local grocery store) runs out. They aren’t fending off zombies or running away from a contagion, so they have time for self-reflection, to form relationships and alliances and to create a new kind of government.
“The Society” is less a survivalist dystopia and more a contained yet epic fantasy/sci-fi drama exploring what it is to be human and which pieces of civilization must be salvaged or rebuilt in order to preserve our humanity when the civilization we know disappears. The script’s nuanced social commentary covers everything from gun control to the death penalty to police brutality, and yes, the young (and mostly unknown) cast is good enough to pull it off.
One of the most intriguing facets of this social analysis is the show’s treatment of women and its depictions of sex, relationships, community and our need as humans for connection. Women and their social influence are crucial to civilization.
We first see this influence in play when the young women of the town band together to create rules for their brave new world. They’re led by former class president Cassandra (Rachel Keller), who points out the dangers of unbridled teen male testosterone destroying what’s left of civilization. She voices a woman’s fear about a world where men think they can ransack a store and take anything they want. If the males of the town think they can do anything, women won’t be able to walk safely at night. Cassandra reminds the girls that they are literally more than half of the population that’s left, and if they use their influence on the boys in their lives, they’ll be able to sway the entire group to create a relatively stable social structure.
In “The Society,” the stakes are high, and they go beyond mere physical survival; these teens are trying to stay morally and emotionally human after the civilized trappings of their world have fallen away. This also applies to sex. We see throughout the show that sex has consequences both short-term and long-term, both good and bad.
“The Society” is a quiet example of the current pushback against the myth of strings-free, consequence-free sex touted by earlier waves of feminism. Women will always bear more of the burden of supposed “casual sex,” and they have way less fun participating in it. It’s pretty awkward to hook up with a guy and then suffer from a UTI in a world without much medical care, but it’s worse when you find out that he graphically fantasized to other people about killing your sister. Impulsive sex can lead to unplanned pregnancy, or it can facilitate you into a situation of sexual, emotional and physical abuse where you feel trapped. But sex in a healthy relationship can foster emotional attachment, belonging, love and comittment. These are all reasons to get up in the morning, reasons to survive … reasons to make sure your world stays sane enough for survival to be an option.
The socialist-esque government and community structure that the teens establish discourages hookups and encourages, even incentivizes, committed romantic relationships. Communal, dorm-like living is the rule, as the teens try to use their limited resources wisely — except for couples, who get private rooms.
“The Society” intriguingly brings the ultimate romantic committment, marriage, into this world of teens through a religious character whose sex life is curtailed not by her parents or another authority source but by her own belief system. Helena (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) is a Christian, and her faith influences how she views sex and intimacy. She feels ready to have sex with her boyfriend only after they commit to spending their lives together, and she wants to be married in church in front of their entire community.
Marriage isn’t the only old-world concept that carries over to this new society. Faith and religious practice carry a surprising weight in New Ham. The teens first react to their apocalyptic fate by getting drunk and trashing the church, partying it up in the space they recognize as sacred. Later, the church is respectfully cleaned and maintained, serving as the place where they come together for town meetings, for religious services, and for announcements of life-or-death importance (literally) from leadership. Helena, the Christian student, is a powerful, trusted figure because her faith can connect the community to a sense of transcendence, some way of finding meaning in the world.
Season 1 culminates in a mayoral election between Allie (Kathryn Newton), the reluctant leader who stepped up to replace her sister and make the hard decisions to keep the town alive, and two opponents.
One candidate running against her is Harry, a former high school star who’s resentful of the new system and wants his power back. But it’s Allie’s second opponent who is far more dangerous: Lexie, a political dissident who was interrogated and humiliated by the guards who enforce Allie’s rules and has no real plan except to overthrow current leadership. Even though Allie wasn’t involved in the incident, her system took someone who was already discontent and made her a martyr with a story to tell. Complicated stability vs. pure anarchy … yes, it can be read as a nod to 2016, but it’s also the story for much of humanity’s history as our world became safer only by straying into moral gray areas along the way.
Despite its darkness, “The Society” is a “teen” show with the moral compass lacking from adult fare like “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones.” Allie rebels against the leadership role she didn’t ask for, but when she’s told she’s the only one who can replace Cassandra and unite the town, she steps up. While it’s not always perfectly applied, she has a sense for enforcing justice and protecting fundamental human rights, as well as the agonizing gray area where the two needs clash. It’s Allie who makes the call when a student confesses to murdering her sister and who brings the town together for a trial complete with 12 jurors and a defense lawyer for the accused.
Characters content with quieter roles show the value of small sacrifices made by people who put the community before themselves. Will, Gordie, Helena, Kelly and Sam are all key characters who are keeping the fabric of the town together, most of their work happening behind the scenes. Will (Jacques Colimon) was Allie’s best friend in their old life; he becomes her adviser and protector as she tries to lead. Kelly (Kristine Froseth) and Gordie (José Julián) both step up to provide medical care for the town, while Sam (Sean Berdy) promises to be a father to Becca’s baby as she reluctantly prepares to be the first mother in New Ham.
The plot twist explaining their brave new world remains to be seen; maybe we’ll find out the where, when, why and how in season 2, just announced by Netflix. But the first season as a whole could be viewed as commentary on Generation Z, a parable about how today’s teens will have to rebuild the world. We may still be living in civilization, but the steady breakdown of the social institutions that keep our world sane means that Gen Zers have their work cut out for them.
Fittingly, the teen characters of “The Society” are forced to be older than their real ages and to make tough decisions about their future after the adults disappear. They’re smart enough to figure out that they’re living not in their real hometown but in a parallel universe, and they learn to play to their diverse strengths in order to survive.
In real life, Gen Z so far promises to be the most diverse, educated and tech-savvy generation yet. If they can live out the best traits of these characters, we’ll be in good hands.