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Netflix’s The Society is far from being the first work to explore what happens when you trap a group of people together and force them to create their own rules. It’s also not the first work to do this with teenagers. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies immediately comes to mind, as does Stephen King’s Under the Dome, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series, and Michael Grant’s Gone series, among many others.
I would argue, though, that The Society, which premiered on Netflix in May with 10 hour-long episodes and was renewed on July 9 for a second season, brings this admittedly over-used subject matter into the 21st century better than any other recent attempt.
While The Society boasts common science fiction themes and apocalyptic mysteries out the wazoo, the series seems to have been largely ignored by genre lovers. Plenty of mainstream news sites got a kick from posting Season 2 predictions and delving into fan theories, but there’s a void here amongst the genre crowd.
It’s a void I’m happy to step into so I can scream into the blackness about how obsessed I am with The Society. Please, join me.
Co-directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) and starring Kathryn Newton of Pokémon Detective Pikachu fame, The Society is equal parts soul-searching horror story and new-age Lord of the Flies. It follows a group of teenagers in fictional West Ham, Connecticut, who return to their hometown after a canceled field trip only to find that every single other person in town has disappeared. And to make things worse? An impenetrable forest has overtaken the roads and bridges leading out of town. They’re trapped — and, as far as they can tell, there’s no one around for thousands of miles.
No parents or authority figures of any kind inevitably leads to a bunch of 17-year-old kids making bad decisions; naturally, they throw a rager at the church. And, naturally, things go downhill pretty quickly from there. Factions form and issues that would have normally been swept under the rug fester; these kids grew up in a digitized world and often fall prey to the court of public opinion, perhaps more than members of an older generation would.
As the more responsible members of the group attempt to eke out some sort of societal rules and find a way to govern their unruly, terrified peers, we learn a bit more about what might have caused this predicament. We know the kids were sent on a 10-day camping trip by the federal government to get them away from a weird, unpleasant smell permeating the town. Why it was important to get the kids away from the smell isn’t discussed in much detail, nor is the reason why the federal government is involved in the first place, or what the smell even is.
These are the very mysteries that plague the teens of New West Ham. To try and figure out some answers, a small committee of two, The Committee on Going Home, is elected to come up with possible answers to what the hell is going on. After a freak solar eclipse and forays into the woods that reveal no signs of other people, they settle on an equally logical and ridiculous answer: Somehow, they’ve all been transported to an alternate reality.
Other possibilities are tossed around: They’re the only survivors of a freak apocalypse; this is a government experiment gone wrong, resulting in a The Village-style society cut off from the rest of the world; this is all a crazy shared nightmare or prolonged hallucination; aliens.
In all honesty, though, the mystery of how these kids ended up here isn't so important. The Society is a story about the dangers of us vs. them mindsets and mob mentality — it’s Lord of the Flies for the digital age, as the kids still miraculously have access to power, running water, and a cellular network (though the only people they can contact are each other).
And because The Society takes place in 2019, it tackles things teenagers are actually having discussions about in 2019, including tough subjects such as sexual assault, victim-blaming, and sexual orientation. The Society is undoubtedly a YA story, in part because, yes, it focuses on teenagers and their subsequent teenage dramas, but also because it understands the things that scare teenagers and young people in 2019. Between the series’ serious discussions about sexual assault and its meditations on how young people interact with the world around them, it’s managed to update a classic horror story.
Because, yes, Lord of the Flies and other comparable works, including The Society, are all horror stories. They’re horror stories about what happens when people are pushed to the edge of and forced out of their comfort zones, about how humans are the worst monsters. And The Society gives us a lot of new monsters to mull over.