How Netflix’s ‘Between’ Ruined a Perfect Premise

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Six weeks ago, Netflix premiered Between, a dystopian teen science-fiction thriller that aired week-to-week rather than being released all at once. It debuted to little fanfare, save for a few tweets here and there, and had been plodding along just as quietly until its season (and maybe series) finale last night.

Between has yet to be renewed, though Netflix doesn’t make a habit of quickly canceling its original series (it’s more into rescuing canceled series from other networks). Either move could potentially make sense: Between hasn’t received the same level of attention as its Netflix peers, but we have no way of knowing how many viewers it is attracting — plus, yesterday’s finale all but necessitates a second season. The problem, however, is that Between just isn’t that good. It is thoroughly watchable and sometimes — rarely — even a bit enjoyable. There are good performances, particularly from lead Jennette McCurdy, and because it’s a Canadian production, a handful of Degrassi graduates (and corpses), including Justin Kelly, Jordan Todosey, and Samantha Munro, have recurring roles. The premise is one of the most interesting ones on television this season, but it’s been entirely squandered through the first season.

In theory, Between should be a compelling, mysterious, and creepy dramatic series. The main narrative is about a small town, Pretty Lake, that becomes the home of a strange and explainable virus that wipes out everyone 22 and older and results in the government quarantining the town inside a tall, electrical fence. It sets up the series for a slightly older (and mixed-gender) take on Lord of the Flies, with kids and teens fighting to survive in a world without parents. That alone should be reason enough to tune in — nearly everyone I explain the basic premise to is sold so quickly that I feel bad about going to explain that it isn’t executed well.

To its credit, Between does sometimes tackle the fascinating and psychologically rich effects of this virus on the town’s inhabitants. It takes its toll on them, and it wears them down — the most memorable and powerful scene of the entire series features the young children burning the infected corpses of the deceased, including their mothers, fathers, older siblings, and teachers. As the days pass, old high school hierarchies crumble (a popular kid remarks that, in the “new world,” it’s not strange for him to talk to someone he ignored in the classroom) while new, self-governed hierarchies rise to replace them. Elementary school kids steal cars to go on joy rides; the drinking age is lowered. Chuck, the requisite obnoxious rich kid, takes it upon himself to be the sheriff who punishes rule breakers and tries vigilante justice when wronged. Things quickly go to hell while everyone fights to survive.

Where Between goes wrong is that it doesn’t know how to properly convey the deep psychological weight and logistical complexity of young people taking on decidedly adult roles without resorting to ridiculous, and sometimes violent, extremes. The moments of tension include a young girl trying to protect her farm from a tiger, Chuck’s little sister (with Down Syndrome) dying — not because of the disease, but because of a car accident — and a moment where Wiley, our protagonist who just had a baby, is the victim of attempted rape. To further complicate matters, the finale reveals that the father of her child is Chuck’s dad, adding statutory rape to the growing pile of messes Between gets into because it believes it has to keep adding more and more drama to a story that is already full.

Between doesn’t do much to propel the mystery surrounding the illness, either. It’s left mostly up in the air until the final two episodes, when Adam’s estranged father (who helped create it, and shares his son’s immunity to it) returns, fakes his death, and then returns again to let Adam know that it’s all about population control. Which is sort of a copout explanation for why a small town of innocent teens is being quarantined — and why the government is planning to murder them. (The plot gets pretty crazy toward the end, but not necessarily in a good way.)

But the strangest thing about Between is the fact that it was the show Netflix chose to test a different release format. At only six episodes, most of which meander and bore enough that it’s hard to imagine why viewers would come back next week, it could have benefitted for a full-season release. Racing through all six — I watched four in a row last night — makes Between feel like a slightly better-plotted program. In this televisual version of Stockholm Syndrome, it’s as if you’re enjoying the show by sheer force of will.