If you’re not of an audience that watches shows like 13 Reason Why or Riverdale, Netflix’s teen-drama The Society may not have popped up on your radar. If it did, you might also doubt how richly compelling a series starring a bunch of indistinguishable teenagers might be, and how it’s possible that a series from the creator of the original Party of Five could be so low-key smart.
You might also doubt that the creator of Party of Five is a Harvard and Harvard Law School grad, but Christopher Keyser’s undergrad and law school education actually comes into play in The Society, which can be described as a sort of contemporary Lord of the Flies crossed with maybe M. Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines. It’s about a high school class in the town of New Ham, which — for reasons that remain unknown — are essentially stranded in their own small community with no parents, no ability to contact the outside world, and no way of leaving the town, which is surrounded by miles and miles of forest. How this comes to pass is part of the mystery of the show, but it’s hardly the point of the series.
The far more compelling angle is how this high-school class manages to survive in New Ham with limited resources. Mysteriously, there is still electricity and running water in the town, and cell phones work but only as a way of communicating with each other within the town, but the food supply is limited to what is already in their homes and what exists in the one grocery store. In the first few days, the high school students go wild, throw parties, and engage in a lot of bullshit teenage behavior, as one might expect, but once it becomes clear that these teenagers will have to live in this town isolated from the rest of the world for the long-term, if not permanently, a bunch of kids still taking civics classes must figure how to apply those civics lessons to their living situation.
Here’s where, interestingly, The Society often feels like The Walking Dead, at least in respect to how they have to figure out how to survive in what is essentially an apocalyptic setting. Leaders much be chosen. Plans must be made. Quickly, Cassandra Pressman (Legion’s Rachel Kellar) takes charge and begins to institute rules, but as with any burgeoning form of government, there is pushback.
(Spoilers from here on out)
Here, that pushback results in a number of the teenage boys rebelling against a female leader, who institutes these rules — in part — because in a lawless society with a number of horny, drunk teenage boys, there’s a justifiable fear among the women that they could be victims of sexual violence. The boys begin to grouse about the new rules and eventually one of those boys, Dewey — in an effort to impress the other boys — straight up murders Cassandra while living under the illusion there will be no consequences.
This is when The Society starts to get really interesting, because Cassandra’s sister, Allie (Kathryn Newton (Pokémon Detective Pikachu), takes over in the leadership position. Because of her sister’s death, she receives something of a sympathetic grace period. People listen and trust her, and Allie starts assigning jobs to the various people in the town. It begins to smoothly operate like a socialist utopia: Everyone has their role, they share living quarters, and they all eat the same share of food in the cafeteria each day. It’s all Kumbaya up in New Ham.
Everything seems to be going well for a while and the series settles into some of its other storylines — a pregnancy, a gay romance, a will-they-won’t-they relationship, an abusive boyfriend — but eventually, the guy who murdered Cassandra, Dewey, is apprehended, and he has to be brought to justice. The town agrees to hold a trial, and while there is some concern regarding whether anyone is willing to defend Dewey, eventually he gets a proper lawyer and is convicted of murder. As the leader of the town, and therefore the judge in the trial, it’s Allie, however, who has to decide what sort of punishment to dole out.
This is where the town starts to divide, because Allie chooses to execute him, worried that this is the only way she can get the rest of the town to fall in line. She feels it’s necessary to instill some fear, and she uses The Guard — basically, the football team — to execute the order. Now, suddenly, this socialist utopia is starting to look like a dictatorship.
Before it gets out of hand, however, Allie decides to hold elections, open to anyone. Initially, most of New Ham’s townspeople back Allie, but Gwen (Olivia Nikkanen) comes out with a populist platform and takes the lead by making a lot of promises that will be impractical or almost impossible to implement without upsetting order in town. Still, the public does not understand this, because there is not yet a method by which to educate them, and so Gwen’s popularity grows.
Then comes the wild card: The abusive boyfriend, Campbell Eliot — whom Allie had alienated by rightfully separating his girlfriend from him — decides to initiate a coup. He does so by appealing to The Guard (the jocks), installing puppets, and then spreading fake news, telling everyone that Allie had planned to stuff the ballot box. Basically, Campbell calls off the election, appoints Gwen and Harry as co-mayors, arrests Allie, and makes plans to run the city from behind the scenes.
Now we have what is essentially a military oligarchy, and that’s where the first season ends.
Here, however, is my biggest takeaway from the first season of The Society, and where Allie — and the rest of the town of New Ham — screwed up: Somewhere between the socialist utopia and the effort to implement a Democracy, they neglected to institute the most important ingredient in any successful society: A free press.
Everything went to hell in New Ham because too much was shrouded in secrecy. There was no transparency. Allie was making decisions for the public based on information the public did not have. A free press might have also prevented the populist wave. It would have definitely prevented the military takeover, because the townspeople would not have been so willing to believe the fake news that Campbell spread. They would have known the truth, because a kid from the yearbook staff would have needled it out of the leaders. She would have held those leaders to account. The public would have understood the reasoning behind the execution, they would have known why Allie separated the girlfriend from the abusive Campbell, and they would have known that democracy had not been tampered with. They may not have liked all the decisions that Allie made, but by God, they would have understood why she made them.
Ultimately, I came away from The Society with a better appreciation for our free press, and though I know it’s broken in so many ways, and that large swaths of the American public remain willfully oblivious to what the press has to offer, at least it’s there. At least we have an opportunity to understand what’s going on in our country. Donald Trump may be running the United States into the ground, but at least we are provided with the details. We see him. We can hold him accountable. We can call him on his bullsh*t. We can plan — and vote — accordingly. We may feel powerless to do it, but at least it’s not all happening behind the curtain.
It’s what is missing from The Society, and if the town of New Ham ever hopes to succeed in season two or three, those damn teenagers are going to need to implement a free press. It is absolutely crucial to a successful government, and the first season of The Society illustrates exactly why.
Header Image Source: Netflix