“Outer Banks” is built to move. From its opening scene, which finds a group of friends crashing a construction site, there’s something always pushing this new Netflix teen drama forward. In other shows with the glossy sheen that covers these pals, that momentum doesn’t always come organically. While the same is sometimes true for “Outer Banks,” even when it falls prey to some of its soapier instincts there’s a distinct kind of energy powering it through weaker tides.
It’s both surprising and heartening to see that in the thrust of this 10-episode season, some of the show’s best stretches are spent just hanging out with the Pogues as they drift somewhere offshore of The Cut, the stretch of islands off the North Carolina coast separate from its more economically advantaged neighbors. The main quartet at the center of “Outer Banks” is led by John B (Chase Stokes), our narrator and the first of two dirty blonde teenagers who find more solace out on the waves than they do at home. The other is JJ (Rudy Pankow), whose frequent hot temper makes him something of a foil to the more bookish Pope (Jonathan Daviss). Kiara (Madison Bailey) rounds out the quartet, a more activist-minded group member who effectively renounces the social standing and financial security of her parents.
As a unit, the Pogues are a familiar mix of platitudes (“We never leave a Pogue behind!”) and crushes and anxieties about what the future might bring. It’s a recognizable recipe, but there’s some genuinely easy chemistry in this group, especially when they leave all those pressures behind and revel in the fact that they’re in high school and have impeccable hair and are impervious to sunburns.
And there’s something in the “Outer Banks” brand of group patter that exists right in the sweet spot between boorish teen troubles and too-clever-by-half philosophizing. Their romantic ups and downs and brewing feuds with beachside bullies aren’t particularly unique, but the show’s setting and approach give them a specific layer that makes these Pogues particularly endearing.
“Outer Banks” isn’t blind to the fact that there are individual problems underneath their carefree facades. John B is wrestling with the absence of his parents, while Pope feels the pull of his growing pre-college obligations. JJ’s struggles with an abusive father start to bubble up in his friendships, and Kiara is more in her element taking charge of the group than dressing up for the social events of the country club set.
Above all the teen drama, the series’ biggest hook is the shroud of uncertainty around John B’s father, who goes missing while pursuing a decades-long search for the remnants of a centuries-old shipwreck somewhere in the greater reaches of the Atlantic. When a key piece of evidence makes its way back to the Pogues, they quickly find themselves at the center of a web of intrigue that puts each one of them in harm’s way.
As a mystery, “Outer Banks” is largely a function of a neat, relatively straight line of clues where the major setbacks happen to be the rising body count around them. As skilled as the Pogues may be behind the steering wheel of a boat, their island-wide scavenger hunt mostly becomes about connecting the dots between the promise of riches and the thing itself. Along the way, the show’s time is still best spent on letting this small group of friends evolve and contract and complicate in between the tidy revelations of their journey.
The treasure they’re looking for is such a massive combination of wealth and coastal lore that the rest of the show feels the need to escalate to live up to the glimmer at the end of the search. In trying to set up real danger for John B and the rest of the crew, there are sequences that find them running from enforcers, police officers, and bullets filed from the guns of very different kinds of enemies.
Whenever “Outer Banks” switches to suspense thriller mode, it loses the relaxed feel that’s its most precious resource. Over the course of the season, the pendulum swings between carefree kickbacks and mortal peril. There’s something about the show’s overall pull that makes it feel more comfortable as a chronicle of a summer hangout rather than an unfolding saga that threatens the lives of over a dozen central players.
Still, what sustains “Outer Banks” through those shakier parts is the idea that it indulges each change in venue. Rather than paint the show as an easy visual contrast between two neighborhoods divided by class, it approaches each of its locations with an open palette. There’s a coastal haze to “Outer Banks” even when there’s not a cloud in the sky over the waves, but the nighttime silhouettes and the shadows inside an abandoned church hideout keep the story from sagging.
Even when the plot machinations later in the season grow exponentially more designed for maximum stakes, there’s still enough goodwill built up in the show’s opening chapters to see how the crew sees their way past a mounting list of obstacles. Some of those later confrontations buckle under the weight of their plot connecting (one particular flashback is especially blatant), but when “Outer Banks” dials its melodrama to its own sweet spot, there’s enough fun — ridiculous and otherwise — to keep a story-hungry audience following along the trail.
“Outer Banks” is now available to stream on Netflix.