Runaways couldn’t have come at a better time. Hulu’s adaptation of writer Brian K. Vaughan’s and artist Adrian Alphona’s Marvel Comics series—debuting today with three streaming episodes and weekly single installments thereafter—is the shot of adrenaline the tawdry teen soap opera genre desperately needed.
Though the genre is still as popular as ever with series like 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale, the former was a depressing and ham-fistedly written slog and the latter’s second season has abandoned its noir-tinged camp for maddening stories about serial killers, vigilante gangs, and teenagers running around the suburbs carrying guns. Runaways is a superhero series with cults, time travel, and a dinosaur (yes, a dinosaur) so it could’ve devolved into the same chaos as has befallen our current slate of teen dramas. But fortunately, Runaways is superb.
You can thank Fake Empire Productions’ Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who know what they’re doing when it comes to teen soaps. After creating The O.C. and developing a television adaptation of the Gossip Girl book series, Schwartz teamed up with Savage to create a production company that would excel in youth-leaning projects. Two of their later series, Hart of Dixie and Chuck, skewed slightly older but still channeled the appeal of throwback soaps like Beverly Hills, 90210. The secret is assembling a cast of characters that people actually want to root for. Despite the dirty deeds of the characters on Gossip Girl, they never crossed the plane into complete lunacy, like those on Riverdale or Pretty Little Liars.
Experimenting outside the genre was less successful for them. Cult and The Astronaut Wives Club were utter failures and Dynasty on the CW is a weak attempt at fashioning a youth-leaning soap out of a series that was originally crafted for adults. They returned to the teen world once, with The Carrie Diaries—an origin series for Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. It was actually pretty damn great yet failed on The CW since the older Sex and the City crowd was never going to watch it. Thankfully, Runaways takes Schwartz and Savage back to basics.
Runaways centers around a group of teenagers who discover their parents are supervillains and go on the run, while also discovering that they have abilities of their own. In adapting the series for television, Runaways smartly stalls before it makes the titular “runaways” actually hit the road. This allows us to learn their dynamic as teenagers trying not only to figure out just how evil their parents are, but also struggling to negotiate the cruel politics of high school. Because these characters will become superheroes, the emphasis is put on making the characters fun and relatable rather than “edgy,” as most network dramas are wont to do on their teen soaps. Sometimes, characters you actually care about trying to do the right thing is enough to get you to tune in.
But Runaways is more than just a teen soap opera. It’s also an action-adventure series and a thrilling mystery. The parents in these shows are often disposable or take up too much screen time, but by making them the central villains in the debut season their backstories are essential, and when we visit them we don’t feel as if the series is losing focus. It helps that the parents are played by familiar faces like James Marsters (Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Kevin Weisman (Marshall Flinkman in Alias), Kip Pardue (Sunshine in Remember the Titans), and Julian MacMahon (Dr. Christian Troy in Nip/Tuck). But they’re also cast diversely and taking on roles that aren’t normally afforded to people of color on television. Brittany Ishibashi plays Tina Minoru, a ruthless CEO who can control the dark arts, and her husband Robert (James Yaegashi) doesn’t fall prey to the tired trope of desexualized Asian men on TV, as he carries on an illicit affair. It’s a testament to the great cast of adults that the second episode, which rewinds the pilot’s surprise twist to depict it from the parents’ perspective, works so well.
However, the focus remains largely on the teens in Runaways, and they’re a group of superhero misfits with powers maybe more exciting than the flying, superpowered ones we’re used to seeing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nico (Lyrica Okano) is a goth who attempts to master the darks arts like her mother; Alex (Rhenzy Feliz) is a nerdy gamer who brings the group back together after a close friend’s tragic death; Karolina (Virginia Gardner) starts to realize her parents are running a cult, while also discovering she has the ability to glow like a rainbow; Chase (Gregg Sulkin) is the son of a super-genius who’s just as adept at crafting technology himself; Molly (Allegra Acosta) is an orphan who discovers that she has super strength; and Gert (Ariela Barer) can communicate telepathically with a dinosaur. Yes, you read that correctly.
Hulu is finally having its moment after the success of The Handmaid’s Tale, and Runaways could’ve just been a throwaway series that tried to appeal to teenagers with melodramatic storylines and eccentric, so-called “edgy” characters. But Runaways looks like the real deal—and it just might be the greatest Marvel television adaptation to date. It’s not a solemn show taking itself too seriously like most of Netflix’s superhero slate (barring Jessica Jones), but it’s also not goofy with low production values like ABC’s Inhumans or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It succeeds by providing a fun mix of whimsy and gravitas that pays respect to its source material while also being compelling television.
Till now, DC Comics has edged out Marvel when it comes to superheroes on the small-screen with its popular series Arrow, Flash, and Supergirl, but it looks like Runaways is gonna give them a run…okay, we’ll skip the pun and just say Runaways is pretty fucking great.