The problem with parents, to quote the timeless lyrics of the Fresh Prince, is that they just don’t understand. In Hulu’s Runaways, the knock on parents is that they are part of a top-secret ritualistic murder cult. Adapted from Brian K. Vaughan’s Marvel comic by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, the team behind The O.C. and Gossip Girl, Runaways is a teen soap cum mystery cum superhero series that, at least through the first four episodes of its 10-episode season, lets its gargantuan plot get in the way of a great story. Like the ur-teen superhero show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (whose creator, Joss Whedon, wrote a story arc in the Runaways comics), Runaways plays with the way that superpowers supercharge the already fraught experience of being a regular adolescent—a stage in which even nice parents seem aggravating and controlling, if not quite capable of semiannual sacrificial killings.
Runaways has an enormous cast, plus a dead teenager and a dead set of parents who are also essential to the plot. The teens include Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz), the black, nerdy, big-hearted leader; Chase (Gregg Sulkin), the white, handsome lunkhead jock; Karolina (Virginia Gardner), a do-gooder blonde devoted to her mother’s church; Gert (Ariela Barer), a purple-haired feminist; Molly (Allegra Acosta), her adopted Hispanic sister who’s just getting her period; and the Asian goth Nico (Lyrica Okano). Despite their differences, the kids all used to be friends but have drifted apart since the aforementioned mysterious death of Nico’s older sister. Their parents also have their own complex backstories and high-flying professions: the abusive tech genius and his belittled wife; the icy angel investor and her gentler husband; the hard-charging attorney and her real estate magnate husband with a gangbanger past; the wacky Jewish scientists; and the picture-perfect leaders of the Church of Gibborim, a Scientology-like cult intimately involved with the murders. If you’re the type of person who likes spoilers—like me!—you can hop on over to the Wikipedia page for the comic book and immediately learn that all of these characters have singular and different reasons for being in cahoots, which is another way of saying that even a streamlined version of Runaways has enough reveals to fuel multiple television shows, or one season of Gossip Girl.
As the show begins, the teens come upon their parents in a temple lair hidden beneath a mansion, dressed like they are going to commit a creepy ritual killing, because that’s what they are going to do. “This is Brentwood, not Bethlehem,” one of the teens says, commenting not only on how strange it is for their parents to be involved in an eerie religious ceremony, but also the rarity of basements in L.A. The kids band together to figure out what’s happening, a quest that swiftly leads to burgeoning teen romances, some light ethical introspection, snooping, X-ray goggles, a magic wand, glowing genitals, and a dinosaur. If you wish Riverdale had more gadgets and secret meetings, this show will scratch that itch.
Despite the slow pile-up of otherworldly elements, Runaways exists in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” without being showy about it. Through the first four episodes, no one makes any mention of mutants, famous or otherwise, even as one of the kids seems to be developing superpowers. Instead, the show feels like another Schwartz-and-Savage 1 percent fantasia, in which rich teens entertainingly mismanage their social relationships, this time without even one relatively poor kid to look askance on all the affluence. That outsider—the Dan Humphrey, the Ryan Atwood—is gone, replaced by the aforementioned plot and all those characters to service.
It’s easy to see why Savage and Schwartz wanted to make this show (besides the wall-to-wall rich people): They specialize in teen drama but have a soft spot for adults and a fascination with the teen-parent dynamic. The O.C., a fantastic teen soap, distinguished itself with the Cohens, the do-gooder family who took in a kid from Chino. Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) wasn’t distant or clueless, even if he wasn’t always cool. Rather, he was a good father: You could call on him and his eyebrows in a pinch, and he would always be there. Runaways, though it features some cold and abusive parents, also has a number of parents in the Sandy Cohen mold: adults who are really interested in their kids, who love them, who want to hang out with them, who chatter and make too-large breakfasts. They’re also murderous villains. Runaways could be great if it dug into the question of whether it’s possible to be a bad person and a good parent, a different take on leading a double life than is standard in superhero fare. But this first part of the season, at least, doesn’t seize that opportunity to stand out. Like most teenagers, Runaways just wants to fit in.