Netflix’s new teen drama is more CW than anything else, and doesn’t offer much else than overstuffed teen antics.
In the early moments of Outer Banks, Netflix’s new teen drama from Shannon Burke and Josh and Jonas Pate, series lead John B (Chase Stokes) gives you the proverbial lay of the land. The titular area of North Carolina is a place where, as John puts it, “you either have two jobs or two houses.” John and his friends JJ (Rudy Pankow) and Pope (Jonathan Daviss) are “Pogues,” teens from the poor side of the island. The fourth of their merry band, Kiara (Madison Bailey), is actually only an honorary member.
She hails from the other half of the Banks, the so-called Figure Eight. That’s where the two-house types dwell, the so-called Kooks. Amongst their number are Sarah Cameron (Madelyn Cline) — Kiara’s former best friend and daughter to Ward (Charles Esten), John’s boss — and her circle of friends. The Pogues’ goal this summer is to have fun. The Kooks, it seems, is also to have fun but to do so in colorful polo shirts and well-ironed khaki shorts.
Shows have gotten by on the well-worn slobs v. snobs dynamic, but Banks is not satisfied to do the minimum. Instead, it layers in a missing, presumed dead dad — John’s — a hurricane, two mysterious goons, a violent local cocaine dealer, and a heretofore unlocated shipwreck that may be filled with gold. Outer Banks is an overstuffed show, to put it mildly.
It is important to note here that John and all his young adult friends and enemies are explicitly between 16 and 18 years old. One must keep reminding themselves of this fact not just because, say, Stokes is probably 10 years older than the character he plays, and looks it, but also because the things these teens do are… unlikely activities for your average adolescent.
The show tries to push past that unshakeable reality by positing a Lost Boys-like lack of parental supervision: The Pogues’ guardians are either too busy or drunk to pay attention to them, and the Kooks’ parents are too rich and permissive to rein them in.
The kids’ nonstop drinking and carousing are easy enough to reconcile with or without absentee parental figures. It’s the treasure hunting, gunplay, undersea salvage, and historical archive raiding that feel unrealistic in a way the show can never seem to overcome. The kids from Strangers Things’ adventures feel infinitely more believable, and they’re fighting shadowy governmental organizations and literal monsters from another dimension.
Outer Banks is an overstuffed show, to put it mildly.
It doesn’t help that some of the Kooks — Sarah’s boyfriend Topper (Austin North) and brother Rafe (Drew Starkey) — play as so over the top evil at times they feel more like Patrick Bateman then the stuck-up rich kid from the other side of the tracks. We’re talking multiple attempted murders here that the show does little more than shrug at.
This is not to say the show is devoid of entertainment. There’s an undeniable dumb fun to be had in Banks‘ ten episodes, the kind that comes from watching pretty people find chemistry with other pretty people. Daviss does solid work as the group’s smartest member who is increasingly losing his group on the “right path” as he repeatedly chooses his friends over a possible scholarship. Sheriff Peterkin (Adina Porter), an ambiguous figure who gets to blackmailing John within the show’s first hour, is another standout.
Unfortunately, the show repeatedly trips itself up. First, it never finds a way to build a world around the strange unreality noted above. In a show like Twin Peaks, you can go as weird as you want because there seems to be at least a fundamental grounding to the larger world. Banks never manages to do that.
Second, the show struggles, time and again, to keep track of its loose threads, abandoning or resolving them with an almost perfunctory attitude. For instance, Sheriff Peterkin is ambiguous until she’s completely not, seemingly just because the plot demanded it. Similarly, the island loses power after a hurricane in the first episode, which seems like a big deal (it’s even used to emphasize the class divide, as the Kooks are rich enough to have well-fueled generators at the ready). By episode two, though, it’s clear this hiccup offers no difficulties for our characters, even though it’s not restored till late in the season.
Despite the innate strangeness of the show, Outer Banks never surprises. In the first two episodes, you can already predict who’s going to fall for who and when, who is going to turn out to not be such a bad guy after all, and who could be harboring a dark secret. While the show continues to traffic in increasingly goofy acts of escalation, it never successfully shocks us.
While not everything Netflix has put out has worked, this feels like the first time they’re offering an original series that would feel just as good a fit for a CW primetime slot. Fans of the teen soap genre may find enough attractive “teens” and wild situations to enjoy an Outer Banks binge. For anyone who is looking for even a bit more substance, though, it will leave the viewer shipwrecked and unsatisfied.
Outer Banks washes up on Netflix’s shores April 15th.