As a sequel series of sorts to Doug Liman’s 2008 YA film Jumper, YouTube Premium’s Impulse represents a dramatic shift in tone and storytelling sensibilities. The film, a would-be summer tentpole starring Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jamie Bell, was a globe-trotting adventure story about a young man who discovers he has the ability to teleport, that he’s not alone in this gift, and that there’s a clandestine organization in place to wipe his kind off the face of the planet. It is the epitome of high-concept popcorn fare — heavy on the action, light on just about everything else. Impulse, by contrast, unfolds in much the same world (and for all intents and purposes it may be the same world) as the film, but is a radically different presentation in almost every way.
Like Jumper, Impulse is based on a novel of the same name by author Steven Gould, but rather than play to the summer blockbuster crowd, it plays to a multitude of potential audiences, making it perfect for a streaming service like YouTube Premium (yes, they re-branded). The premiere, which is directed by Liman, is essentially a genre variety pack, offering viewers a moody teen drama, a mystery thriller, a small-town crime show, a survivor’s tale, and a global sci-fi adventure. Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of one or all of these kinds of shows, it’s a good bet you’ll glom on to at least one aspect of Impulse.
The series may seem like a mash-up of (possibly too many) different story types or that it’s goal is to be everything to everyone. But showrunner Lauren LeFranc (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Chuck) manages to make each component work both separately and collectively, for a surprisingly compelling YA series that uses a superpower as the engine to drive any number of storylines. At any given time, LeFranc has three or four plots ready to spin out of the main story of Henrietta ‘Henry’ Coles (Maddie Hasson) slowly discovering she has the ability to teleport; each one is not only in service to the larger plot of the show, but they all keep the story progressing at an impressive clip.
Impulse isn’t just a thousand miles away from Jumper on a tonal and stylistic level, it’s also far removed from that story in its setting. Set it upstate New York, Henry’s story unfolds in a small, snow-covered town where she lives with her mother Cleo (Missi Pyle), stepfather, and stepsister Jenna (Sarah Desjardins). LeFranc and Liman work to send the audience to a lived-in setting. From the high school to the bowling alley to the diner where Cleo works, the town feels like a place where people work and live. The value of that comes as it becomes increasingly clear it’s not a place Henry is meant to be.
Impulse may dip its toe in several different genres, but it’s most comfortable as a YA story. In that regard the series closely resembles Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and Freeform’s upcoming Marvel comic book series Cloak & Dagger. It's much better than both, however. What’s most surprising is that, in dealing with heavy issues like sexual assault or introducing a fantastical element like teleporting teenagers (and more, as the series progresses), Impulse demonstrates itself to be a more competent, compelling, and compassionate storyteller. The inciting incident of the series is Henry’s attempted rape by local golden boy Clay Boone (Tanner Stine), high school star athlete and son of criminal entrepreneur Bill Boone (David James Elliott). The trauma of the experience opens the door to the series’ fantastical element and results in Clay being severely injured, but the event is never swept under the rug or forgotten simply because Henry has unlocked a remarkable ability. The series makes a concerted effort to explore the emotional fallout from the assault on Henry without using it solely as a means to shock the audience or by depicting it through a voyeuristic lens. It’s a fundamental part of the season’s overarching story, and one that Impulse uses to not only help the audience better understand Henry, but also to better establish how Henry’s tenuous relationship with her comparatively virtuous stepsister becomes one of the more satisfying dynamics of the show.
In that regard, Impulse impressively balances the story of a small town that’s hiding a lot of secrets with the larger implications of Henry’s supernatural ability. In and interview with Liman, the director told me the aim was to tell “stories where there's big ideas happening in grounded places and to real people,” and that he “wanted to do something with Impulse where, even if you didn't have teleportation, it would still be a compelling story in a compelling world.” By all accounts Liman and LeFranc have been successful in that approach, as evidenced not only by the budding sisterly relationship between Henry and Jenna, but also the relationship she has with her mother, the Boone family, a combative teacher, and, most notably, fellow classmate Townes Linderman (Daniel Maslany), a young man on the autism spectrum, who quickly parses out that she has special abilities.
The story of the first season is primarily concerned with Henry’s journey of self-discovery, her desire to leave her home town, and the various elements that keep her stuck there. The conflict with the Boone family and their criminal enterprise keeps the story moving, as does the larger world-building that involves fellow teleporter Dominick (Keon Alexander), and his conflict with members of a clandestine organization -- played by Keegan Michael-Key and Callum Keith Rennie -- determined to bring him down. But even when the series is jumping to the arctic or to a deadly rooftop brawl in another country, the story is constantly striving for and achieving forward momentum. Again, it seems like the effort to keep this many plates spinning would send Impulse off the rails, but the series proves itself more than capable of handling multiple story threads and weaving them into a coherent, compelling, and surprisingly fast-paced story that’s not just miles beyond Jumper but beyond what similar fare is capable of achieving right now. As far as moody teen dramas go (with or without superpowers), Impulse is one of the best options available to viewers at the moment.
Impulse season 1 is available to stream on YouTube Premium.
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