High school freshman Holden Matthews is thrilled by astronomical discovery. He’s also great at fixing machines, bad at talking to girls and one drunken, star-gazing night away from a freak accident that leaves him in a coma for 12 years. When he wakes up, he discovers he has telekinetic powers, a recurring dream where a creepy old dude keeps telling him to “do it now,” and a need to learn how much has changed since the early 2000s.
“There’s a whole store for apples?” Yes, Holden, there is, and they always seem to get glitchy after a software update.
Beyond—Freeform‘s family-friendly sci-fi fantasy premiering in January–is a rehash of very familiar ground. It owes the most to Stranger Things (and its wild success), co-opting most of its plot concepts and deep love for flashing lights. It’s essentially a show that imagines Eleven as a handsome 20-something with girl troubles, injecting a supernatural high concept into the standard ABC Family teen angst formula. Filming Beyond the same summer that audiences went nuts for Stranger Things must have been a surreal experience, but the show didn’t seem to alter its course away from the similarities one bit.
The puzzle pieces all come standard with the confused-Neo-in-too-deep starter kit. There’s a creepy stalker in horn-rimmed glasses (and a nasty yellow Member’s Only jacket) working for a shadowy organization who wants Holden (Burkely Duffield) because of his newfound powers; the sexy mystery girl/probable love interest (Dilan Gwyn); the younger brother (Jonathan Whitesell) who keeps Holden grounded to the real world; the weirdo mental Kung Fu master in Holden’s head; the best friend (Jordan Calloway) with conflicted allegiances; and well-meaning parents (Romy Rosemont and Michael McGrady) who don’t really know what’s going on.
Instead of Stranger Things‘ plucky adolescents coming of age in the middle of a spooky conspiracy adventure, Beyond boasts pretty college-aged kids trying to piece a family back together while one of them learns to handle his Carrie-esque coma magic and to make out at parties.
The only other major departure it makes from Netflix’s surprise hit is in focusing on a single figure instead of an ensemble, allowing the world to revolve around Holden instead of jumping feverishly between narrative threads and evolving characters.
To its credit, Beyond does what it does capably, if only strictly by the book. Duffield is lovably dumb as a 13-year-old boy stuck in a 25-year-old man’s super powered body, with his default setting over the course of the first few episodes being bewilderment and panic attacks that burn down buildings. Gwyn is alluring and magnetic as Willa, the go-between who claims she spent the last decade and change with Holden’s consciousness as it trained in the astral arts. And, yes, the mystery behind what’s really going on is intriguing even though the show’s lack of inventiveness doesn’t point toward anything groundbreaking behind the big curtain.
Calloway, who plays Holden’s grown-up childhood friend Kevin, earns a special nod for maintaining intensity and interest even as the writing leaves his character’s motivations confusingly vague.
Beyond is also shot beautifully, finding interesting ways to frame sequences (like watching shadows in a flood light scale a security fence) and conversations (redefining intimacy when Holden meets Willa for the first time) without getting too jarring or experimental for cable.
Despite the sheen of older stories, it finds nooks and crannies between the slabs of sci-fi paranoia formula to have fun. That meet-cute is a nice subversion, turning a stock scene where a fumbling goof recovers from an awkward comment about underwear into a dire warning from a young woman whose heart breaks just a little when her brain-altered friend doesn’t recognize her. There’s also a fantastic revelation of Holden’s super powers that would feel comfortable in the middle of any big-screen, comic-book movie.
That’s really where Beyond shines: a production value that elevates the standard and editing that injects electricity into the familiar. It’s fun and safe, with a cast that sharpens the dull edges. It’s the comfort food form of well-trod sci-fi–a younger sibling to Heroes that is appropriately at home on ABC’s younger sibling station.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 telekinetic burritos