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“For the last motherfucking time, I’m not a fucking superhero!” screams teenager Henry (Maddie Hasson) halfway through Impulse, YouTube Premium’s new TV series. It’s a statement of intention as much as anger, and the supernatural drama does well to balance both with equal weight.
The opening is one of the most impressive starts to a series you’ll see this year: within minutes, we’ve jumped from a busy train carriage to a remote icy landscape to the top of a building, and then seen someone plummet from the roof down to pavement below. It’s a bold, striking punch-up with unique choreography and exciting spectacle, uniting the impressive presence of Keegan-Michael Key with the confident direction of Doug Liman.
Doug Liman? Sci-fi? Jumping? If all of this is starting to ring a bell, that’s because yes, Impulse is part of the Jumper universe – a universe that sputtered into life with Liman’s 2008 film (starring Jamie Bell and Hayden Christensen) and promptly sputtered back out again. That, however, was never due to its concept its visuals and mostly due to its characters and hectic, illogical plot. The idea of ordering a Jumper TV series might seem like a strange move, but it’s actually a smart way to wrestle a young adult-friendly franchise into something more thoughtful and compelling.
Thoughtful and compelling? Those words might seem at odds with the premise of people who can teleport through the world like X-Men, but Impulse’s strength lies in the fact that it moves away from blockbuster action almost immediately after Liman’s eye-popping (and presumably expensive) opener. It’s no coincidence that the show has played down its connection to Jumper, or that it has jettisoned much of Steven Gould’s original novel upon which the 2008 film was based. This, instead, is a new teen-focused tale that just so happens to feature Jumping – and the low-key, character-driven approach pays off handsomely.
After our initial burst of teleportation, there’s no sign of it in the everyday lie of Henry, who lives with her mum (Missi Pyle) and step-sister (Sarah Desjardins) in New York. She’s not the most popular girl in school, but finds herself the unexpected subject of attention from basketball hunk Clay (Tanner Stines). A flirtatious car ride, though, takes a turn for the dark, and Henry fights him off, trying to get out of the vehicle – only to do so by appearing back across town in her bedroom.
It’s an incident that roots her ability to teleport firmly in distress, fear and rage, more akin to a seizure than a superpower. It also roots the story firmly in important issues of sexual assault and the consequences it carries. Cole’s life is forever changed by the aftermath of Henry’s Jump, while she has to deal with the trauma of his attempted rape, as well as the shock of her newfound abilities. Whereas in a movie such plot points might be rushed, or the starting position an exploitative attempt to use abuse to forward a story or character, Impulse hugely benefits from its 10-episode runtime: the impact of Cole’s actions are felt for episodes and episodes afterwards, as showrunner Lauren LeFranc takes the opportunity to explore the realistic burden of abuse and the time it takes to come to terms with it, not to mention raise questions of consent that should be addressed in a series targeted at a young adult audience.
The focus on Henry’s experience in the ensuing days and weeks makes this more of psychological drama than a supernatural thriller; we see her reach out and connect with her mother, fall out with her step-sister, call out an inappropriate teacher at school, and face off Cole’s family, who are thuggish, unsympathetic and protective of their athlete. It’s in between these moments that we worry about her telekinetic travels – an approach to genre that echoes the effective strategy behind Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger and The Runaways.
Indeed, as the series continues, we don’t learn much more about Henry’s powers, and our journey of discovery mirrors her own progress in working out how this ability works and what triggers it. She’s helped along not only by Desjardins’ skeptical and sometimes supportive sibling but also by Townes (Daniel Maslany), an awkward science geek at school whose interest in her powers is both theoretical and very excitable. The superhero jibe is at him, as Henry takes the chance to remind him that this is a person’s life we’re dealing with, not a game, cartoon or piece of fiction. Hasson sells that sincerity and depth superbly, fleshing out what could have been a two-dimensional role in other writers’ hands with both an engaging honesty and relatable wariness about her body’s random, unpredictable habit of disappearing in one place and appearing in another.
Despite the welcome focus on Henry and her story, though, Impulse quietly lays groundwork for something bigger during its first season, from a subplot involving drugs in the small town community to – more intriguingly – a French-speaking family who are prepared to sacrifice anything to escape the trackers on their tail. It’s in those moments that Impulse really impresses, not just in terms of its ambition and scale, but because it hops away from them before they can distract from the central narrative; that combination of inward-looking anguish and outward-looking intent makes this YouTube Premium series a promising start to an unexpected franchise reboot. If you’re a YouTube Premium subscriber, you’ll be pleased to know a second season has already been commissioned.
Impulse is available exclusively on YouTube Premium, as part of an £11.99 monthly subscription – including YouTube Premium Originals and YouTube Music, as well as the rest of YouTube advert-free.
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