Class Canceled

Charlie Markbreiter on The Society (2019)

Christopher Keyser, The Society (production still), 2019. Season 1, episode 1. Photo: Seacia Pavao/Netflix.

WHAT IF YOU COLLECTED SOME SEXY RICH KIDS and abolished not just their trust funds but money itself? The Society, Netflix’s ten-episode YA drama, spins off this premise. Set in a Greenwich, Connecticut, mock-up called West Ham, The Society begins with a smell. The town reeks. It’s TV, so the smell is maybe symbolic, the sins of derivatives-trading, pipeline-investing parents karmically rerouted to their own homes. No worries: The teens, bratty and smoldering, will be sent on a camping trip until the aroma is gone. But after a rockslide forces the bus to turn around, they’re dropped back in West Ham only to find that everyone has vanished. At first, this rules. Cue scene of slo-mo bros homoerotically pounding beers down one another’s throats in the town church. The next morning, they scoot their convertibles to the end of town and find it blocked off by miles of new, impassable forest.

Christopher Keyser, The Society’s showrunner, is perhaps best known for creating the program Party of Five (1994–2000), which follows five newly orphaned siblings after their parents are killed in a car crash. While these young protagonists have also been abandoned by adults, Keyser tasks them only with remodeling their individual family structures. The Society, adapted from Lord of the Flies, takes this world-building one step further. As the trust fundies figure out how to survive, differing styles of governance are mapped onto classic high school archetypes: Class president Cassandra is a socialist; hot loner sociopath Campbell is a fascist; Harry, Mr. Popular, just cares about his stuff (he’s a libertarian).

As New Yorker critic Doreen St. Felix pointed out, The Society is less about socialism per se than it is about Boomers mawkishly tapping into a Gen Z socialish zeitgeist. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Keyser described The Society as “a kind of post-Parkland conversation about what this generation of kids is thinking, and how they’re interested in remaking the world in some ways.” Keyser’s vagueness here (“some ways”) is telling. As one hungover jock asks another, “Are we in an episode of Riverdale, or Soviet Russia?” The answer is both and neither. As in Riverdale (2017–), the unachievable good life of the American suburban dream is reformatted as high camp. Unlike Riverdale, The Society presents socialism as a new identitarian category: Socialist representation matters.

Christopher Keyser, The Society (production still), 2019. Season 1, episode 1. Photo: Seacia Pavao/Netflix.

The Society’s most exciting episodes occur early in the season, as the teens experiment with collective forms of living. Food is communalized and rationed; mansions are turned into co-ops. Cassandra can be a know-it-all, but she isn’t aggressively power-hungry. She wants everyone to survive. If they don’t, she doesn’t either. Direct democracy just happens to not occur to her. The ensuing conflicts could have been enough to sustain the show: Residents who want Cassandra to share her power clash with those who crave the peaceful order of her rule; rich kids oafishly learn to clean and cook. In an alternate fanfic timeline, Cassandra’s proto-socialist state would naturally wither away; the machinery of power would become obsolete while interpersonal strife would persist, proving, to quote sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson, that “if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama.” Instead (spoiler alert!), Cassandra is deposed; police and prisons are implemented; someone gets executed.

This jump toward a more standard dystopian genre is motivated not just by the demand for soap-operatic content but by a schism between the show’s ostensible politics and its conception of desire. At first, The Society seems to propose that, under different political circumstances, people’s desires can change. Sort of free from the past and under a sort of socialist state, mean hottie Kelly (Kristine Froseth) becomes a community doctor who helps inventory the town’s food supply. Sensie-jock Grizz, played by sensie-bro Jack Mulhern, admits that he’s gay and kisses a guy.

But these conversion moments are undercut by a classic anti-communist argument: that the uncontrollable, self-destructive force of desire—immune to politics––will always wreck collective projects. This stance recalls Thomas Hobbes’s conception of the “natural condition of mankind,” which claims that people are inherently megalomaniacal and, without an authoritarian sovereign, will destroy one another in a war of “all against all.” In our teen soap, the Hobbesian view is represented by Campbell (Toby Wallace), who wants power for power’s sake; Allie (Kathryn Newton), who wants power to offset personal insecurity; Harry (Alex Fitzalan), a sort of lazy sovereign who wants to protect his private property and be treated as a king by virtue of that property, his whiteness, and his maleness; and Lexie (Grace Victoria Cox), the chaotic evil who wants power but doesn’t know how to reign.

Does The Society’s fundamentally conservative assumptions about desire’s resistance to politics reinscribe a capitalist-realist stance? Or does the show suggest that under the right conditions—that is, a crossover between the catastrophism of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and the hyperbolic surplus of Gossip Girl––even rich kids can become class traitors, embracing collective action instead of indulging in individualist bourgeois guilt or arch crypto-fascism? For Keyser, the answer is a resounding “maybe.” As he argued in the same Hollywood Reporter interview, “Although the show has the specter of chaos hanging over it, part of it is also potentially optimistic. It’s not out of the question that—having worked through all the kinks and figured out what they mean to each other—this first generation in this new society could actually figure things out.” Whether this is true in life is, as always, more complicated.

The Society is currently streaming on Netflix.