Amazon’s The Boys has spent three years playing a game of one-upmanship, initially taking the somewhat fatigued superhero genre out behind the woodshed with layers of corporate satire, increasingly salty and nihilistic language and tidal waves of bodily fluids.
As much as I often enjoy The Boys, once most of the competition was left in the R-rated dust, that one-upmanship frequently became self-directed, and as such, has felt like a bit of a creative dead-end. One exploding character became 15. Liters of fake blood dappling walls escalated to vats of viscera, with some sperm for good measure. The show’s ethos has always been “More, more, more,” but not always “More creative, more creative, more creative.”
The Bottom Line
Uneven but entertaining.
Airdate: Friday, Sept. 29 (Amazon)
Cast: Jaz Sinclair, Chance Perdomo, Lizze Broadway, Shelley Conn, Maddie Phillips, London Thor, Derek Luh, Asa Germann, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sean Patrick Thomas, Marco Pigossi.
Showrunners: Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters
With the new spinoff Gen V, The Boys is at least briefly able to take a much-needed reset, bringing in a largely new group of characters, adjusting the satirical targets, and although the new series is still deeply invested in transposing our internal goo to the outside, it does some new things with its corporeal spatter.
There’s no single performance as likely to earn accolades as Antony Starr’s ultra-intense take on Homelander, but the cast of relative newcomers is generally sturdy. If the series becomes frustratingly rushed as it progresses, within that rush and those choppy narrative choices, I kept finding enough moments of giddy inspiration to be entertained and sometimes more than that.
The series opens with a scene dedicated to out-Carrie-ing Carrie, or at least marking out distinctive new terrain in the tried-and-true “girl’s first period” genre. Young Marie Moreau (Jaz Sinclair) retreats to the bathroom, discovering she’s bleeding at the same time she learns she has a very disturbing superpower. She’s capable of manipulating blood, but incapable of controlling that manipulation, with tragic consequences. It’s… gross. And disturbing. And funny as hell.
Years later, Marie is in a controlled facility for teens with powers, a facility that normally transitions its wards into even more controlled asylums upon adulthood. But Marie has a way out! She’s been accepted at Godolkin University, or God U, an advanced institution that turns gifted individuals into either powerful crimefighters or actors.
The Godolkin setting lets Gen V turn its iconoclastic attention to the burgeoning realm of “special schools,” taking the piss — and blood and sperm and vomit and whatnot — out of the likes of Sky High, X-Men, Wednesday and Harry Potter.
Especially in the first episode, directed by Nelson Cragg and written by Craig Rosenberg, Evan Goldberg and Eric Kripke, that means lots of world-building, introducing us to the God U campus, its social structure — students are ranked based on “talent, skill, brand awareness and social mentions” — and the people in charge. That includes superpower-free president/superintendent Indira Shetty (Shelley Conn) and renowned professor Richard Brinkerhoff (Clancy Brown).
Although she dreams of being part of The Seven, Marie knows that if she gets in any trouble she’ll be shipped to the asylum. So she attempts to fly under the radar, even resisting the friendship of her chipper roommate Emma (Lizze Broadway), who has the ability to get very small.
In short order, and for reasons that are dispatched far too quickly to make any sense, Marie finds herself befriending a group of highly ranked upperclassmen led by unstoppable alpha Golden Boy (Patrick Schwarzenegger), his mind-manipulating girlfriend Cate (Maddie Phillips), his metal-warping bestie Andre (Chance Perdomo) and Professor Brinkerhoff’s gender-shifting TA, Jordan (Derek Lum and London Thor).
By the end of the pilot, several people are dead, Marie has gone from unassuming underdog to a heavily hyped version — kind of a Capillary-ness Everdeen, if you will — and the main characters are embroiled in a Vought-adjacent conspiracy involving Compound V and something called “The Woods.”
That pilot was probably my favorite of the first six. Its 55 minutes are full of all the eager-to-please grossness and deft pop culture references that fans will crave. There’s a very likable looseness that comes from a whole new setting and a mostly new ensemble, even if a number of characters from The Boys pop up for cameos. It’s mostly the men from The Boys who pop up, underlining the subversive contrast between the two shows.
Gen V is all about the women and all about these female characters exploring traditional adolescent insecurities and rites of transformation through a supernatural prism. Not only is Marie’s gift unleashed through menstruation, but she’s only able to channel it through cutting. Emma’s power connects closely to the fetishizing of female weight and size. Jordan’s gender fluidity is clearly meant to generate trans-adjacent conversations, and while I’m not sure the series is quite equipped to have those conversations (nor does it want to address the J.K. Rowling in the room), there are interesting ideas floating around.
There’s a lesson that nobody quite seems to be learning from the start of the Harry Potter series, namely that viewers are very tolerant of certain types of heightened exposition and that if you spend a while simply establishing character and setting with very little immediate plot, it will pay dividends when you want to load up on mythology later.
Gen V, to its detriment, lacks that patience. It’s so eager to charge forward that it can’t be bothered giving most of its main characters personalities, much less building believable relationships between them. It tries filling in gaps as it goes along, but episodes get shorter and shorter and when it comes to the choice between characters (and the metaphorical underpinnings of their gifts) and plot, Gen V chooses plot every time.
And the overarching plot isn’t especially thrilling — lots of stuff about corporate cabals and illicit medical research. But thanks to the characters and their unique skill sets, there are wildly fresh things that go into pushing the story forward.
It’s easy just to stigmatize Marie’s gift as unsettling and unseemly — various powers-that-be wonder if blood-bending will have four-quadrant appeal in Middle America. But it’s increasingly versatile and, on a show that still loves nothing so much as making its characters explode into chunky red mist, Marie is able to do some new stuff there.
Then there are extended puppet sequences, slightly trippy (if maybe illogical) journeys into mind-palaces and, thanks to Emma’s power, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-inspired jaunts into miniaturization and size play. Throw in snarky “Wait, did they really make THAT joke?!?” nods to things as innocent as PaleyFest and as not-innocent as parties at Bryan Singer’s house and there’s a lot happening in Gen V. Whenever it’s able to pause and breathe, the writing is clever, the effects are polished and the cast is good.
Introduced as surly and withdrawn, Marie reacts to immediate unwanted celebrity and the branding opportunities that come with it in ways that are complicated and unconcerned with simple “likability,” giving Sinclair a wide range of emotions to play. She has her best scenes with the extremely funny Broadway, who weathers the pilot’s predictably prurient interest in Emma’s power — this is a franchise that LOVES a giant penis prop — to become the show’s most sympathetic and even sweet character.
Schwarzenegger’s Golden Boy has a lot in common with Homelander and in his untethered intensity, there are effective similarities to Starr’s performance in the mothership. I wish Phillips was getting more of a chance to use the comic muscles that would have made her a star several years ago if Netflix hadn’t dumped Teenage Bounty Hunters. But she makes Cate more complicated than her first impression suggests. There are strong supporting turns from Asa Germann, Sean Patrick Thomas, playing Andre’s famous superhero father, and Jason Ritter, whose part I won’t spoil.
It isn’t that The Boys exactly needed rejuvenation or rebooting. The third season felt, to me, roughly like the first two — excitingly uneven. And it isn’t that Gen V smooths out that unevenness. But I would say it’s qualitatively of a piece with The Boys and some of its tweaking of coming-of-age conventions puts the emphasis more on the “exciting” column than the “uneven.”