Christopher Keyser, who created “The Society,” found out Thursday that Netflix was suddenly pulling the plug on his show. The streamer, which also canceled “I Am Not Okay With This,” released a statement Friday saying, “We’re disappointed to have to make these decisions due to circumstances created by COVID.”
“We spent the last bunch of months getting ready to go back again, dealing with all the COVID protocols,” Keyser told Variety Monday. “And then I got a call from Netflix saying, ‘We have made this decision.’ It was obviously pretty upsetting and abrupt.” Keyser, whose credits include co-creating “Party of Five,” said he and co-executive producer Pavlina Hatoupis spent the rest of Thursday and Friday calling the cast and crew preparing them before the news broke.
“The Society” premiered on Netflix in May 2019. The show is about a group of high-school students from an affluent (and fictional) Connecticut town called West Ham, who leave for a school trip only to return to find that everyone else has disappeared — and that they’re cut off from the rest of the world. After the shock wears off, the kids form their own government for “New Ham” and establish laws. But at the end of season 1, there’s been a coup against the mostly decent leadership of Allie (Kathryn Newton) orchestrated by the psychopathic Campbell (Toby Wallace). As if that weren’t enough of a cliffhanger — Allie and her cohort are in mortal danger — in the final moments of “The Society,” the show reveals that over in the parallel universe of West Ham, the kids are considered missing, and life has continued on without them.
The first season of “The Society,” inspired by William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” reflected the chaos of living under the Trump administration, and the fragility of a just society. But this spring, as the coronavirus quarantines cleaved the United States into factions, the show had inadvertent resonances with the political upheaval of recent months as well. Keyser said those echoes would have continued in Season 2: “It would have been on point.”
A Netflix spokesperson had no further comment on the show’s cancellation. A source with knowledge of the situation said the show was well-liked, but was canceled because of the overall impact coronavirus protocols would have had on its budget and schedule. As Variety has reported, budgets for television shows and movies shooting during the pandemic are going to increase due to the protocols needed to ensure the safety of cast and crew.
According to Keyser, “The Society,” which filmed on sets in Devens, Mass., and on location in surrounding towns, the show was ready to begin shooting its second season in March, when all production shut down. When conversations began about how to produce television again, “We were dealing with Netflix and the rise in the budget and all of that kind of stuff,” Keyser said. “There were ongoing conversations — we knew that there were challenges for this.”
Another issue was that the show’s action left off in December, but season 2, Keyser said, “was meant to be shot mostly in the summer — but we were heading back into fall and winter. And then they made the decision that it was too much. That’s, I guess, how it goes.”
“I can’t pretend I’m surprised,” he continued. “I know we had many months of conversations about the challenges of producing in this environment.”
Every show has its own particular demands in order to shoot safely. In the plus column for “The Society,” Keyser said, a lot of the show was filmed outside: “But to our disadvantage, we have a large cast and scenes often with a fair number of people.”
On Friday, the show’s star, Newton, went live on Instagram with co-star Gideon Adlon, who played the pregnant Becca. During the conversation, Newton said she was “heartbroken” over the show’s cancellation, but said “Save ‘The Society’ is trending worldwide, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
Adlon added, “It’s definitely a bit of a gut punch.”
“We’re in a pandemic!” Newton said. “The world is upside down.”
Both actors said they thought they were going back to set in two weeks, in order to begin filming on Sept. 20. As Adlon’s mother, Pamela Adlon — the “Better Things” creator and star — voiced her displeasure of the show’s axing, “bulls—!,” in the comments, Gideon solicited fan theories: “We want to know what the fans thought was going to happen.”
As far as saving “The Society” goes, Netflix owns and produces the show, making it an unlikely possibility. “It’s only been a day, so I haven’t even thought about it in a meaningful way,” Keyser said. “Obviously, no one wants to see the story they’re writing end, and I would like the characters not to end up as the children of New Ham — to have disappeared suddenly, abruptly, never to be seen again. But I’m not entirely in control of that.”
Keyser would like to be able to share with fans “what we were planning for this season — but it’s a little too soon.”
He was able to speak about it broadly, however. At the end of the first season, as the town ran out of food and supplies, a group of explorers found farmable land and animals roaming in an open field. Keyser said season 2 would have revolved around “the establishment of what we called the ‘outpost,’ and the eventual conflict between the outpost and the town over control.”
He continued: “It raised a lot of large questions about the way in which we treat each other, and the way we create caste systems and an underclass. It had big political implications, but also a lot of new relationships — and also resolving questions about who was in power, and who wasn’t.”
But because of the “Lord of the Flies” model, Keyser said, there would have been “a descent into greater darkness — the rules don’t hold.”
The larger mysteries of “The Society” would also have been addressed throughout the season, Keyser said: “We spent a lot of time talking about the reasons why the children of West Ham became the children of New Ham. What the cause of that was, how they might return home.”
Keyser said he had originally imagined “The Society” to be five seasons. But he was certainly aware of Netflix’s increasing reluctance to let shows go on that long, as the company has matured and has adjusted its budgets, resulting in an increasing number of cancellations and shows ending. “Anyone who’s on Netflix knows the chances of five seasons are diminishing, unless you have ratings of a certain type,” Keyser said. “And we certainly didn’t have ‘Stranger Things’ ratings, so I was not expecting that we would exist for that long.”
He paused. “But longer than one season for certain.”
Keyser called Netflix “good creative partners on the show,” and said “I loved doing it there.”
“This is extremely upsetting,” he added. “But it would be for anyone. We have no choice but to, as so many people do within this period, deal with the losses that this pandemic has caused. I guess we’re like all those small businesses and restaurants that closed and aren’t going to reopen. Our people are out of jobs, but that’s true all around the country.”
Indeed, while no one wants to have their show canceled, Keyser has weightier concerns.
“I have to say, I’m sad about losing this,” Keyser continued. “I’m more sad that the country couldn’t figure out a way to cope with the pandemic through science and leadership and logic and a sense of shared responsibility.”