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August 22, 2018 at 05:05 PM EDT
Aimee Spinks/Netflix
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There’s a reason few genres are more frequently funneled at teenage audiences than the supernatural romance.

Whether we’re talking lovelorn vampires, angst-ridden werewolves, or even the occasional unquiet spirit, these paranormal pariahs — all fighting against their nature in order to live (and love) with some semblance of normalcy — have long served as weirdly perfect surrogates for teens so trapped in the horrifying process of “becoming” that they feel like strangers in their own skin. Growing up can be a monster, you know.

Enter The Innocents, a too slippery but often intriguing new Netflix series (out Friday) that — in a spoiler too fundamental not to mention here — hopes to do for shapeshifters what Twilight did for bloodsuckers (even if Spring is perhaps a more apt comparison). It follows a teen named June (Sorcha Groundsell) who realizes she can flit between human forms at will, “shifting” into someone else’s form merely by touching them. But this isn’t X-Men, and she’s no Mystique. When June first shifts, it’s entirely accidental, and she’s horrified by the experience — never more than when considering what baffled boyfriend Harry (Percelle Ascott) must think.

And on paper, that’s a pretty inviting proposition, one that actually gets smarter the more you think it through: What more fitting force to starcross two young lovers than the spooky realization that one of them has literally become someone else?

To cursed June, such a discovery certainly feels like life-ruining stuff, especially given that her abilities manifest right after she and Harry run away from their mutually broken families. His father is practically in a comatose state, her mother disappeared years ago, and they both have ample reason to hit the road. Beyond getting as far away from their dreary Scottish town as possible, the couple’s grand plan is of the starry-eyed and nebulously minded variety, born of passion more than precision. Still, it’s safe to assume neither pictured June waking up the next morning in the body of a hairy, wild-eyed Norwegian fellow. (It’s as bizarre as it sounds.)

Luckily, she still looks like herself in the reflection of the bathroom mirror, allowing her to confirm her identity to a rather rattled Harry; but as you can imagine, this doesn’t exactly put the poor guy at ease. June eventually manages to shift back into herself, and the pair continue on their way to London, but neither can afford to brush off something so bizarre, especially once June begins to shift on a more regular basis, jumping into the bodies of clubgoers and hospital nurses with first increasing curiosity, then a confidence that freaks out her beloved.

Oh, and that hairy Norwegian guy? He’s still hot on their trail, intent on bringing June back to the Land of the Midnight Sun, where a creepy doctor (Guy Pearce) is experimenting on similarly gifted women, hoping to unlock the secrets hidden in their DNA (and also master the weird art of running a top-secret lab out of homely cabins in a gorgeous fjord).

Basically, it’s a whole lot of show — too much by half, even with eight waterlogged episodes comprising this first season — and it’s all unfurled in such damnably evasive fashion that more audiences will initially come away perplexed and frustrated than its creators perhaps intended. In this sense, the Netflix series with which it has most in common is probably The OA, another mysterious melodrama that matted and prolonged an ultimately underwhelming story arc in order to service its rich, immersive atmosphere.

Especially at the outset of The Innocents, it’s difficult to get a grip on who’s who — let alone what’s going on — and the only reason both come into focus across the season is that the series spends much of its length repeatedly hitting the same character beats and plot points. Harry loves June, neither can control of this strange new development in her life, and shifting is a capital-D dangerous enterprise; at points, one wonders if The Innocents knows it’s necessary to advance these ideas instead of just reinforcing them. Ditto for the stale arc involving Pearce’s doctor, a Big Bad who is ultimately just another artificially constructed obstacle threatening to separate June and Harry.

Where The Innocents is stronger involves that main relationship; even more than the CW supernatural dramas with which it has much in common (including, sadly, an over-reliance on weepy pop songs), this is an unabashedly romantic series, one that pulls much of its power from an underlying belief in love’s ability to bring light into a dark world. That’s a hard tone to maintain without collapsing into dramatically limp schmaltz (and The Innocents does botch it in some subplots — particularly one involving another shifter, a lost girl in London who may be beyond saving), but what it does have in its corner is commitment, from those crafting the show’s dreamy visual palette as well as its two fantastic leads. Groundsell and Ascott have that kind of instant, lived-in spark that often makes you feel as if you’re intruding, a fly on the wall disrupting something more real and compelling than any of the supernatural gobbledygook in play.

Some will scoff, but The Innocents really does work best — albeit imperfectly — as a strange and delicate romance. At its core, this is a show sweetly more concerned with reaffirming the power lovers draw from one another than watching the world tear them apart in dramatic fashion. And even if what plot surrounds it is ultimately too shapeless to make you crave the too-eagerly teed-up second season, that’s an aim too refreshingly earnest not to embrace. B-

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