It has been genuinely interesting to watch how Prime Video’s flagship series The Boys has grown and diversified since its launch in 2019. Back then, the landscape between the big sluggers of streaming was slightly different: Netflix was easily on top, Prime Video kept making wrong-shaped stabs at doing what Netflix did but in blue instead of red, and Disney+ had barely been announced, let alone all the others. The first series was a fun-enough start – some good lore-making, the creation of a set of characters beloved enough to keep at least four seasons going, and now we all just have to accept that Jack Quaid is going to pop up in things for the rest of our lives – but it lacked a bit of conviction, a bit of bite. Watching season one felt as if the characters were constantly going to turn to camera and say: “Please don’t switch off and go back to Netflix. I promise we’ll make a penis explode in a minute if you can just be patient and sit through this exposition dump.”
Season two and three really found their feet, though. They leaned into their R-rating and stopped having to explain who every character was at all times (“Your mother really loved you, you know”, “I know dad. It’s a shame she left when I was 12”, “It’s been hard on all of us, son” – there, I just wrote the pilot episode). And with the superhero universe clearly defined, they were able to have fun with it. The Boys does well in presenting a new texture of the superhero genre without relentlessly lampooning it, but what The Boys does really well is it tells a story in that universe that reflects on our own: season three took on online Nazis, smug corporate virtue signalling and American patriotism. That’s pretty good going for a show that has a French character called – oh come on guys, you can’t call him Frenchie.
It has been four years now and The Boys has undergone very deliberate, very superhero-appropriate franchiseification. As well as the main series, there’s satirical new-style webseries Seven on 7, animated anthology Diabolical and a short run of comic books. In a way this is good – there’s nothing superhero fans love more than diving deep into the sea of their favourite worlds – and in a way I find it so chillingly pragmatic it makes me feel unsettled and sick. Anyway, let’s look at the latest live-action spin-off, Gen V (Prime Video, from 29 September).
So: Gen V follows Jaz Sinclair’s Marie Moreau as she starts at superhero university Godolkin. In the tradition of superhero stories, she experiences a traumatic but formative parental death and is an outsider who cannot yet control her powers, and she has to make friends at a university with distinctly high-school friendship formulas (it feels like Gen V is set at a university purely to avoid Euphoria comparisons). Also, as is tradition, every actor playing a college student is either 30 or almost 30. It’s fun – a little slow, a little silly, some episodes feel as if you’re waiting around for the R-rated graphic set-piece to happen – but it does two things very right: it keeps the world of the campus small (there’s a mystery that only Marie and her friends can solve – perhaps not everyone who seems good is everything they seem!), and it jokes about modern culture without going for the jugular, this time about internet-addicted teens.
It’s a strange moment in TV right now: they keep making shows about teens aimed at teens but with half an eye on the adult audience that ends up watching as well. Euphoria did it, Stranger Things did it, Riverdale does it, you could argue Sex Education does it; there are probably dozens that I’m missing. Weirdly, those shows are actually where the swearing and the sex-having and the drug-taking are happening – in a pearl-clutching TV landscape where even the grittiest shows are trying to write out nudity, 30-year-olds playing teens by wearing a backpack using just one shoulder strap are apparently the only characters allowed to act up. Gen V pushes gleefully into this new space – there’s a sex scene early on that I’m not going to spoil but, yeah, you’ve never seen anything like it – and has a lot of fun doing so. If this is what rampant, corporate-led force-franchising looks like then … well, keep it coming.