One easy way to kick off a TV show is to have a fight between two people hopping back forth between a subway train car and the edge of a glacier. It’s no small feat, then, that after starting that way, “Impulse” then foregoes just enough of the international metaphysical intrigue to tell a compelling high school drama story.
A majority of the new YouTube Premium show centers on Henry (Maddie Hasson), a high schooler who at the outset is mainly concerned with looking to escape a troubled family situation through a haze of pot smoke. Her life changes one day when a classroom seizure brings on some unexpected abilities. Over the course of subsequent weeks, Henry discovers that she has teleportation powers that she has little ability to control.
Still trying to understand these new experiences, Henry finds herself in another unthinkable situation after getting a ride home from Clay Boone (Tanner Stine), the high school’s football player and favorite son of a local car dealer. Over the course of a single scene, one kiss becomes a sexual assault. Struggling to extricate herself from a horrifying situation, her newfound ability takes over and she’s instantly back in her bedroom.
“Impulse” doesn’t treat Henry‘s trauma and abilities as a byproduct of one or the other. This isn’t a show out to diminish the weight of being a survivor. Instead, “Impulse” gives Henry space to wrestle with her memories of what happened without immediately shouldering her with a Nolan-esque burden of responsibility. The inexplicable ability to manipulate time and space is clearly something for her to unravel, but “Impulse” doesn’t do it at the expense of what else she’s gone through.
Henry isn’t alone in figuring out the mystery of this newfound power for which she has few words to describe. Her estranged would-be stepsister Jenna (Sarah Desjardins) and observant classmate Townes (Daniel Maslany) gradually take a vested interest in not only solving the mystery behind Henry‘s unexpected talent but trying to give her a psychological toolkit for understanding the other experiences she continues to relive.
In a storytelling approach reminiscent of another recent survivor story, Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” Henry revisits her memories of the assault, imagining alternate outcomes and questioning her own path forward. The day-to-day demands of high school life and the pitfalls of keeping her teleportation a secret give her plenty of other things to focus on, but “Impulse” doesn’t lose sight of the idea that she’s still trying to rationalize how something like that could have happened.
While the show is also focused on Henry’s story, “Impulse” takes the time to build out other strands within this greater world. A French-speaking family is on the run from would-be trackers. Police officer Anne Hulce (Enuka Okuma) begins to investigate suspicious deaths in Henry‘s hometown. It’s a lot for the show to bite off at once, but at least it starts early, rather than waiting for those stories to overlap with a breathless rehash of how we got there.
Through Deputy Hulce’s share of the story, the show emphasizes that trauma can exist outside of something supernatural. For two very different reasons, Henry and Hulce struggle with the things they’ve seen and experienced. Watching them try to maintain some semblance of normalcy under times of great distress is a way for “Impulse” to maintain a connection to something tangible from the real world, not just exploiting their experiences as something purely fantastical or otherworldly.
At 10 episodes long, the occasional seams start to show as the season progresses. Although the sound and visual design of various characters teleporting across the globe is always a well-executed shock, some of the effects start to strain the bigger the world gets built out beyond the pilot. A subplot involving an illicit prescription pill empire at times is a little derivative of other TV dramas with small-town drug manufacturers.
Although it’s admirable to see a show like this ground its story in recognizable real-world issues, this season also has its hands full juggling a number of throughlines at once. By the time the hometown drug ring ensnares federal agents talking about the opioid crisis, there’s a sense that some of these bold choices begin to stretch the show thin. There’s also the “Orphan Black” issue: Henry’s story and the resultant pressures of teenage life that come with it are enough to build an entire show on. Whenever the scope of “Impulse” stretches out to hint at a shadowy, conspiratorial framework controlling the narrative, it’s almost always a less-efficient use of the show’s time.
But there still plenty of times when the show wisely cuts against expectations for a story like this. Not all of Henry‘s plans to discover or control her ability go according to plan. (One sequence at a quarry is the perfect blend of spectacle and natural absurdity.) Henry’s relationship with Cleo (Missi Pyle) also reverses much of the usual mother-daughter dynamic in a show with a teen protagonist. And even though the premise of “Impulse” might have fit into a Freeform or CW programming lineup, the lack of restrictions on streaming make for a less-sanitized, more honest consideration of many of the ideas the show examines.
“I’m not a fucking superhero, OK!” Henry shouts in a heated moment towards the middle of Episode 4. Just as there’s no simple blueprint for understanding how a harrowing experience can linger in someone’s subconscious, “Impulse” doesn’t take the conventional route for a show with immense powers. In uncharted territory, it’s a show that’s finding its way.
The first three episodes of “Impulse” are now available to stream on YouTube. The full season is available with a subscription to YouTube Premium.