Hands up who’s actually been to a summer camp. If your hand isn’t up, it’s unlikely that you’ll raise it any time soon: following in the tradition of slasher movies set in remote forests, BBC iPlayer’s The A List isn’t exactly a winning advert to visit one.
The new series is part of the Beeb’s push into programming for teen viewers – right down to releasing the whole box set all-at-once rather than airing it weekly. The coming-of-age drama explores the group dynamics of a bunch of kids who head off for the holiday of a lifetime. Things, needless to say, go wrong.
That starts, tellingly, with the arrival of Amber (the enjoyably menacing Ellie Duckles), a mysterious figure who turns up late but immediately positions herself as the queen bee of the camp – much to the displeasure of Mia (the superbly sympathetic Lisa Ambalavanar), who has been lining up that role all for herself. The tension between the two becomes the driving force of the whole 13-part thriller, one that drives a schism through this tiny community.
Their rivalry starts off simply enough, as one hijacks the party the other was organising, but soon takes on a creepy air, as we discover that Amber has powers. Not just to win friends and influence people, but to control them as well, from what they think and say to even what Mia sees. The drama’s at its most effective in the show’s first half, as it builds suspense through the repeated revelation that what we think we’re watching isn’t what’s actually happening at all. So while there’s the token battle over a boy – Dev (Jacob Dudman) – there’s also the eerie brainwashing of Kayleigh (Savannah Baker), the strange outlaw lurking in the undergrowth, the appearance of sinister red paint on the locker room walls.
Directors Patrick Harkins, Jim Shields and Dan Berlinka frame this all against the inherently unnerving Scottish countryside, at once beautiful and chilling, majestic and isolating. It gives the show the vibe of Riverdale and a touch of Stranger Things – it’s easy to see why the BBC is hoping to use this to compete with Netflix and other streaming services when it comes to young eyeballs. It can’t quite measure up with those production values, though, with some of the set pieces feeling notably lower budget than Netflix’s more stylised offerings – one subplot involving a drone, for example, is a bit of an anticlimax.
While the ultimate resolution of the unsettling unanswered questions is therefore a little underwhelming, creators Dan Berlinka and Nina Metivier smartly avoid going full-on genre, instead anchoring events firmly in the social twists and turns of teen life; through the lens of a mystery horror, they find some fantastic parallels between the supernatural and the recognisably mundane, from the sarcastic outsider Alex (Rosie Dwyer) becoming the perceptive cynic of the ensemble to the inherent fear of a new friend like Kayleigh suddenly changing allegiances and personality, seemingly on a whim. Even the camp leaders who are a little too forcibly cheerful play into the boundary between the irritating nature of forced teamwork and the disconcerting strangeness of what those smiles might be concealing.
The result is a thriller that’s primarily about identity, both remembering who one is and not losing sight of who one wants to be. Compared to Riverdale and Stranger Things, this is a B-grade telly, but when The A List is exploring those issues, it’s a box set worth devouring, as it grounds events in a protagonist who’s far from perfect and doesn’t shy away from the everyday terrors that come with growing pains.
The A List is not currently available on VOD.