If you expected “Gen V” to be as subversive, perverse and brilliant as “The Boys,” only more sophomoric, you won’t be disappointed.
Prime Video’s college-set spin-off of TV’s smartest, sickest superhero show brings adolescent angst to the paranoid world powered by the chemical/military/supes entertainment conglomerate, Vought International. The show is centered on young people who were dosed at birth with the company’s extra-human abilities generating Compound V studying at Godolkin University. Everyone calls the place God U, where they either major in crime fighting or brand management.
Extracurricular concerns include social media notoriety, gender dysphoria, lost siblings, cutting, bulimia, suicide and the perennial parents who suck (as do most other adults). “Gen V” puts sci-fi spins on these and other youth-adjacent issues, which generates kooky but sometimes clever and resonant metaphors.
There’s also, of course, all the hooking up, getting wasted, uncontrolled outbursts and destructive impulses we associate with teens and young adults. And in the first six episodes of eight shown to critics, “Gen V” has at least one sequence that out-nauseates “The Boys’” penchant for exploding penises (though that’s here too), and many more that strive for similar effect.
Yet for all the show’s love of extreme shock, “Gen V” keeps the bitter psychosis that rampages through the established series to a minimum. Despite the demented stuff they deal with, God U’s young protagonists maintain a certain naivete. Even the most schizophrenic of them want to be heroes, and have yet to form a full understanding of what that means in the cynical society Vought’s wrought. One kid is even a virgin for a while.
The student body cast, mostly actors in their late 20s, is great at conveying the collegiate mix of innocence and overdramatized emotions.
Our main heroine is Marie Moreau (Jaz Sinclair of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”), a hard-luck orphan whose power is controlling blood. This manifested super-traumatically with her first period – shades of “Carrie”! – and now she slits her palms to produce hemoglobin bullwhips. The scholarship freshman lands on God U’s Top 10 popularity list after she appears to do brave things. This is a stepping stone toward joining Vought’s highest-ranked super group, The Seven. But can Marie handle the intense P.R. makeover and intrusive mentoring of Godolkin’s duplicitous dean Indira Shetty (“Bridgerton’s” Shelley Conn) that graduating with such an honor requires? Sinclair nails Marie’s ambition while holding onto her embattled moral center.
Marie’s roommate is sweet, slightly addled Emma Meyer (Lizze Broadway, “Ghosted”). Her “Fun-Size Little Cricket” YouTube channel documents the misadventures of someone who can shrink to three-inches high. It’s not a hit, but might be if her mortifying method of getting small got out. Emma has the ickiest sexual and heroic encounters too, but somehow remains the show’s cheeriest and funniest character.
Andre Anderson (Chance Perdomo, another “Sabrina” alum) is a legacy admission who inherited his university trustee dad Polarity’s (Sean Patrick Thomas) magnetic powers. He’s expected to make it to The Seven, but is sidetracked by an investigation of horrible things God U’s secretive research department is doing. Sam Riordan (compelling newcomer Asa Germann, who’s like a hunky Paul Dano), perhaps the most powerful but definitely most unstable new supe of all, is most terribly impacted by these experiments.
Other students that get drawn into the mystery include Cate Dunlap (Maddie Phillips, from the overlooked gem “Teenage Bounty Hunters”), who can mentally push people into doing whatever she says with the touch of a hand. She gets the best of “Gen V’s” too many lines meant to satirize social conventions: “I could take my glove off and make you, but I won’t because I’m all about consent.” London Thor and Derek Luh convince us they’re the same person, insta-transer Jordan Li. Their powers shift with their gender, as do amusing aspects of their identity.
Patrick Schwarzenegger plays the university’s troubled top prospect, a Human Torch/Superman mix called Golden Boy. Various characters from “The Boys” make guest appearances, but “Gen V” is otherwise its own “X-Men” thing to the flagship show’s twisted “Fantastic Four.”
It’s also “Stranger Things,” “Wednesday,” the aforementioned “Sabrina” and every other IP about kids tackling supernatural mysteries. “Scooby-Doo” is one of many pop culture references, which like some of the series’ “hip” dialogue, can land with a splat. Showrunners Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters are veterans of “Law & Order: SVU” (and, better precedents for this, cult series “Dollhouse” and Marvel’s “Agent Carter”), which may explain why Gen Z characters here would improbably mention David Caruso’s oeuvre or Nancy Reagan’s oral skills.
Its tin-eared moments aside, the show persuasively depicts psyches that haven’t fully developed yet. The youthful tendency to view everything as a life-or-death matter becomes alarmingly real on campus and elsewhere; the school’s rule against going to clubs in the city isn’t just some fascist adult thing, but proves a wise precaution. And when the dialog isn’t cringey, it can be quite character-revealing and even genuinely humorous.
Suspense and action work fine, if not too distinctive from other quality shows of this type. There’s a matter-of-fact aspect to the makeup effects, even at their yuckiest, which makes them fun to look at – if you can.
“Gen V” doesn’t go for “The Boys’” up-to-the-minute political allegories. It may, though, present an even deeper critique of media, how it influences and vice versa.
And how to satirize its sloganeering and promises of false glory.
“We’ll accept you as the unique, culturally rich change agent that you are,” Dean Shetty pitches to potential students.
“I’m kinda like PewDiePie without the Nazi stuff,” Little Cricket says about her underwhelming “Fun Size” show, putting the dream of super privilege, acceptance and success into realistic perspective – or at least the closest thing the Voughtverse has to that.
“Gen V” premieres Friday, Sept. 29, on Prime Video.