‘Gen V’ Answers the Question, ‘What If ‘The Boys’ Had Even Less Impulse Control?’
Programming a new streaming service must be an extremely frustrating job. You hope — nay, you trust — that your platform is going to be defined by shows like an awards-baiting sitcom about a lady comic making her way through the late 1950s and 1960s, or a globe-trotting spy drama, or either of two fantasy series based on extremely beloved book series. But then the discourse turns on the shows you thought would hit: People are mad that your lady comic is miscast; your globe-trotting spy drama only makes headlines for how expensive it is; and your fantasy series fall far short of the affection their stories inspired readers. One day, you look around and realize the best money you spent was on the rights for a filthy, profane comic book series that satirizes superheroes, so what the hell, might as well order a serialized live-action spin-off,* too. In this case, the profane comic book series is The Boys; the spin-off — arriving Friday with a three-episode premiere — is Gen V, an excellent extension of Prime Video’s most unpredictable franchise.
For those who aren’t familiar: The Boys is set in a universe where superheroes are not just real, but are a renewable resource on which the American economy rests. The corporation that essentially controls and directs superhero operations — both as crime fighters with quasi-legal oversight, and in movies and TV shows in which they play themselves — is called Vought, after its Nazi-sympathizing founder. The first three seasons of The Boys located us in and around the heart of power at Vought, both with The 7 (this universe’s Justice League equivalents) and with The Boys, the commando group fighting to take them down. And while The Boys have had some short-term wins, Vought’s connections to government and its ownership of multiple media companies — including news organizations — generally mean it’s as invulnerable as, well, some of the supes in its stable.
The proof of how effective Vought has been in managing its image lies in Gen V’s very premise. A company in decline would struggle to maintain its relevance for young people. But Zoomers are so eager to be recruited that they have enrolled at Godolkin University, where students can be trained in all the disciplines useful to Vought — crime fighting, performing arts, superhero management. Unlike their supe forebears, God U students generally seem to know their parents dosed them with Compound V in early childhood in the hopes of cashing in on their powers, fame, and wealth later in life.
We enter God U with Marie (Jaz Sinclair), who’s come from the institution where she’s been living since she was orphaned in puberty — or, to be more precise, since she orphaned herself: the sudden onset of her superpower, which allows her to control the flow of blood in herself and others, including turning her own blood into weapons, caused the accidental deaths of both Marie’s parents. Her roommate is Emma (Lizze Broadway), who’s built a respectable social following around comedy videos playing off her ability to make herself tiny and, for instance, pretend to fight her hamster, David Caruso; no one knows the self-harm that’s required for Emma to transform herself. Jordan (London Thor and Derek Luh), in addition to physical invulnerability, has the ability to change instantaneously from a traditionally male presentation to a female one, changing size and heft in the process. Andre (Chance Perdomo) can control and manipulate metal. At the top of the social hierarchy — and of the official God U rankings, which are updated moment to moment based on students’ acts of heroism and online fame — are Luke (Patrick Schwarzenegger), aka Golden Boy, who can strategically immolate himself without injury; and his girlfriend Cate (Maddie Phillips), a powerful pusher who has decided to sideline herself in support of Luke’s very bright future. As the school year begins, youthful recklessness on several fronts requires elaborate cover-ups, altering everyone’s ideas about their futures as supes, and forcing them to face what our heroes in The Boys already know: Vought is a danger to everything it touches.
As The Boys goes on, it is, naturally, going to hit a point where it maxes out its escalating stakes. Producers in this franchise must be on their guard to avoid climaxes that just feature evenly matched heroes blasting each other with lasers from their hands (a trope The Boys has satirized in previous seasons). So for this spin-off to focus on superpowered college students is an extremely clever tweak on the format. Even though plenty of plot in The Boys is driven by its seemingly fearless heroes concealing their private insecurities and terrors, those characters are adults, and have generally chosen to be where they are. The cast of Gen V have to figure out what it means to have their gifts; at the same time, they’re figuring out, on a basic level, how to control them. They’re deciding how to feel about the parents who exploited them with doses of Compound V; at the same time, they’re deciding whether to trust the institutions that have been set up to exploit the powers that resulted. The college years were challenging enough for the students in A Different World and Felicity, adding the “great responsibility” that is the burden of every superhero makes things a lot more complicated for the students at God U.
There are plenty of ways all of the above could have made Gen V insufferably emo, but creators Craig Rosenberg, Evan Goldberg and Eric Kripke (the latter two also of The Boys) are sure to keep things weird. God U students are subject to all the same ill-considered impulses as any other college-aged kid escaping their parents’ houses for the first time, but every sketchy setup in Gen V is thought through to the most absurd possible conclusion. It’s normal, for instance, for a girl to have bad sex with a selfish partner; his fetishizing her specific physical abilities is what takes that sex from bad to bonkers. It’s normal for a crowd of teens to get way too drunk at a house party; not knowing whether they can’t remember the last night — and maybe the several days before that — is what turns that party from a regrettable mistake into a dirty scavenger hunt for the truth. Throughout, supes are absolutely wrecking both civilians and each other in scenes of shocking, hilarious violence (an athletic contest that ends in dismemberment is an early highlight). You know how you wouldn’t necessarily trust a 17-year-old to drive your car? Imagine a 17-year-old with typically suspect judgment and the ability to pick up your car and drop it on a bully.
Like The Boys, Gen V can seem like it doesn’t always trust its audience to understand its satire. Emma’s power, for example, is an unsubtle metaphor for the violence girls and women wreak upon themselves in patriarchy; Marie’s is a nod to the shame that surrounds menstruation. But the show moves too fast for you to get mad at any Big Idea it seems to be handling clumsily. Before you know it, you’re on to a security guard exploding, followed by the most demented sex scene you’ve ever seen. The Boys is one of the most important and most deranged shows of our time; Gen V is a bracing addition to its canon.
* Not to be confused with the show’s first spinoff — the animated anthology series The Boys Presents: Diabolical — which premiered last year.