Monday, December 03, 2018

"Impulse": Season 1 review

I got sidetracked this weekend when I discovered a new YouTube Premium series called "Impulse," which is primarily the story of a teenaged girl named Henrietta—"Henry" for short—who discovers she has the power to teleport by generating little wormholes. In the ten-episode first season of "Impulse," Henrietta discovers and begins to harness her strange power. The series has been renewed, so there will be a second season at some point. As I watched chapter after chapter of this story, I began to wonder whether the entire premise was a ripoff of the 2008 movie "Jumper," starring Hayden Christensen and Samuel L. Jackson. That movie also featured people able to teleport, and those people were also being chased by nameless-yet-nefarious parties. As it turns out, "Impulse" is based on the third novel of the Jumper series of novels, and a further connection is that Doug Liman, who directed "Jumper" (along with other movies you may know, such as "The Bourne Identity," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," and "Edge of Tomorrow"), is the executive producer of "Impulse," thus once again putting him behind the wheel, creatively speaking.

Seven out of ten episodes of "Impulse" were directed by women. This fact is important because "Impulse" is science fiction for the #MeToo generation. The core trope in this series is sexual assault, which happens in the pilot episode and has repercussions throughout the season. Masculinity is generally portrayed as toxic, and "good" male characters are all submissive, quiet, physically weak, stupid or feckless in various ways—oh, and closely attentive to feminine needs. On the other hand, the female characters tend to be dimensional and diverse: all of them are flawed, and some have greater strength of character than others. Suffice it to say that "Impulse" is a thoroughly feminist show. If you can get past that, you can enjoy the story for what it is. Me, I binge-watched the entire first season over the weekend. Despite its often-distasteful politics, the series weaves a compelling drama about familial dysfunction, dynastic hubris, and malicious intent.

Henrietta "Henry" Coles (Maddie Hasson) is the daughter of Cleo Coles (Missi Pyle). With the mysterious departure of Henry's father, the two women have spent years moving from place to place, with Cleo hooking up with boyfriend after boyfriend. For the moment, they've settled in the small town of Reston, New York, and Cleo seems to have found a more-stable-than-most boyfriend, Thomas Hope (Matt Gordon), who has a daughter the same age as Henry named Jenna (Sarah Desjardins). Cleo and Henry live with Thomas and Jenna. Cleo works as a waitress at a local diner, and Thomas works at a bowling alley that sits on the property of arrogant local car magnate Bill Boone (David James Elliott, of "JAG" fame), protector of the Boone family name and proud father of Clay (Tanner Stine) and Lucas (Craig Arnold, doing a convincing Aaron Paul impression). Clay is Reston High School's athlete-stud-in-residence, the can-do-no-wrong golden boy with a bright future. Lucas works in the auto shop at the Boone Family Motors car dealership, and Bill, who is divorced, sleeps around with prostitutes and—important detail—engages in drug smuggling across the US/Canada border, partnering with a rogue group of Mennonites led by the quietly sinister Jeremiah Miller (Shawn Doyle). Sniffing out all the wisps of malfeasance in this small town is Deputy Sheriff Anna Hulce (Enuka Okuma, and it's pronounced "hull-chay"), who is a new arrival to the town but a veteran policewoman who has served in the NYPD.

Those are the main characters in the series's "A" story. The "B" story is more directly about the fact that Henry is not alone: there are other teleporters like her, and they're being hunted down by some mysterious organization whose face on the show is Nikolai (the awesome Callum Keith Rennie, whom I first saw on "Battlestar Galactica" as the show's craziest, most religious Cylon). We first meet Nikolai as he's tracking down a French-speaking family, some or all of whom seem to have the ability to teleport. The father, Dominick (Keon Alexander), desperately searches for a way out of this predicament: he's sick of being hunted, and all he wants for his family is to live in peace, but Nikolai is relentless. As you might guess, Henry eventually appears on Nikolai's radar.

Henry is prone to having seizures, which worsen throughout the pilot episode. She gets inappropriately manhandled by one of her teachers after she publicly insults him, which triggers a seizure, right there in class, that in turn causes a telekinetic event: students' pens and binders all begin moving toward Henry while she's seizing. Later on, when Henry is in an SUV with sports stud Clay Boone, Clay begins amorously pawing at and violently choking Henry, causing another seizure—but this time, the telekinesis is more intense, as if Henry were a black hole attracting everything toward her, causing the SUV to implode. Right as the SUV crunches down into a crumpled mass, Henry disappears and reappears safely in her bedroom, along with a chunk of Clay's SUV. Clay himself remains trapped in the vehicle; a few episodes later, we discover the incident has broken his back and left him paralyzed. Clay purports not to remember "the crash" that crippled him, nor the events leading up to it.

So the show interweaves several plot lines: Henry's interactions with family and classmates, the looming presence of the violence-prone Boone family, the police investigation of the Boones' dealings and of Clay's "accident," Henry and Jenna's blossoming sexuality, Henry's increasing understanding of and control over her power, and the closing-in of Nikolai and his mysterious agency, which seems intent on capturing and experimenting on teleporters. The through-line is Clay's sexual assault on Henry. While it's not quite a rape, it is a full-on attack, and the show is vague as to how much of the incident Clay himself remembers. This frustrates Henry to no end because she wants, more than anything, for Clay to confess his transgression and show remorse. Clay, an inheritor of the Boone family's signature arrogance, refuses to do any such thing. Definite shades of #MeToo and #BelieveAllWomen, here.

Henrietta isn't the most likable character. As someone with a painful and checkered past, she lives her life in stereotypically angry-teen fashion, fighting with her mother and with Jenna, and generally pushing away the people who most want to help her. Actress Maddie Hasson, as Henry, has an awesome resting bitch face, and with her strong jaw and bristling beetle brows, she channels anger and sarcasm like nobody's business. While the character might not be likable, I have a lot of respect for Hasson's talent at making me dislike her on screen. Henry might almost be described as an anti-hero, given how consistently she makes poor life-choices throughout the series, all while maintaining an aura of self-righteousness. Over time, though, as she comes into her power, Henry begins to mature and to become a bit more tolerable.

For my money, though, the real revelation is David James Elliott, who spent years playing a nice guy on "JAG." Elliott's Bill Boone is, despite his good looks and charm, a thoroughly evil man, and he exudes a level of malice that is almost on the order of Joe Pesci's Tommy in "Goodfellas." Boone has webs of influence all through the town of Reston, but his drug-trafficking racket creates problems for him that prove hard to solve cleanly and diplomatically. His love for his sons is sincere, even if Lucas, the elder son, seems to be the only Boone with an actual conscience, which often puts him at odds with his father. But even that love has a sinister cast to it: Bill Boone's attitude that "you'd do anything for family" has more than a whiff of the mafioso about it.

So, yes: overall, "Impulse" has proved to be a compelling series. It definitely has a feminist agenda, and for some of my more conservative readers, that's going to get in the way of enjoying the story as it unfolds. But take comfort, guys: the women in the story are flawed and often make stupid mistakes, so it's not as though the screenwriters are putting women on some untouchable pedestal. And while teleportation stories have been done to death, especially in recent years (the show actually has a moment that I take to be a bloody tribute to the Harry Potter concept of splinching, i.e., getting injured during teleportation, called Apparition in JK Rowling's world), the rest of the series's dramatic elements more than make up for the unoriginality of the sci-fi. I found the series very watchable, and you might, too.

1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

I had never even heard of this Canadian TV show, but it seems I wasn't the only one. I had at least heard of "Cobra Kai," but as YouTube recently canceled most of its original, scripted fare, I see I was one of millions and millions not pulled into their pay-to-watch programming grab.

However, I will give it a shot based on your recommendation after I finish "The Honourable Woman" and Australia's "Mr Inbetween." If you want something along the lines of "24" to watch, England's "Bodyguard" is just as riveting and only 6 episodes long. (p.s. "Bodyguard" clip not safe to watch at work.)