Science fiction series that have an environmental message are usually pretty darn depressing. Barren landscapes, isolated humans, hectoring messages about how we’re killing the planet. But a new Netflix kids’ series takes an eco-friendly stance and tries to make it full of wonder and fun.
Opening Shot: In a mysterious bunker, men in full hazmat suits push boxes that have the label “Monkhouse Dynamics”.
The Gist: At the Braelawn Academy, the school day is starting, and the kids taught by Mr. Short (Tom Basden) are gearing up to go on a field trip to Monkhouse Dynamics, where billionaire mogul Dalton Monkhouse (Robert Sheehan) is going to announce his latest robotic invention. Mr. Short and his prized student, Nas (Moosa Mostafa) look at trading cards of Monkhouse’s inventions and speculate on the rumors about how this new invention will blow all those away.
Speeding towards the school, a car skids hard in order to not hit a hedgehog. Hopping out of the car is Nas’ sister Sophie (Phoebe de Silva) and her bestie Misha (Moosa Mostafa), who is proud of her ability to avoid hitting the little guy. whom Sophie wants to take to a vet. The driving instructor in the passenger seat may disagree with Misha, however.
We see Tom (Daniel Frogson) pulling up, with his mom mostly ignoring him; she’d rather creepily flirt with Tom’s strapping friend Danny (Curtis Kantsa). Best buddies Bethan (Carys John) and Josh (Nathanael Saleh) arrive, as does the precisely-scheduled Chelsea (Marlie Morrelle). Finally, the rickety, backfiring bus arrives to take them to Monkhouse.
During the long drive, we see some of the class dynamics. Danny bullies Nas, and tries to get Tom involved. When Sophie defends him, Danny starts to turn on her, until Misha brings up the girlfriend that just dumped him. Nas, somewhat oblivious about his enthusiasm, continues to prattle on about Monkhouse and his inventions.
When they get there, a hologram of Monkhouse welcomes them; after Danny gets Tom to reluctantly dump Nas’ backpack, Nas goes off on his own and finds an open door. There, he sees an orb that flies on its own and glows. Sophie goes after him, and finds him right in time to see the orb.
During the presentation, where a hologram of Monkhouse is presented in different cities around the world, the billionaire explains that he found that the biggest enemy to the planet is humans, and none of the small stuff individuals do will help. So he felt he had no other choice but to address the issue. He introduces his new invention, the autonomous orbs, and tells everyone to look into their light.
On his cue, the orbs start shooting at the people, making the ones they hit vanish into thin air.
Our Take: Written by family comedy veteran Paul Neafcy, The Last Bus spends its first half-hour episode efficiently setting up the players in this story and the situation. Somehow, Neafcy is able to imagine a scenario where robots actively destroy humans and make it family-friendly, with the orbs making the humans it hits disappear instead of actually dying. But what that scene does is not only ratchet up the stakes, but conveniently eliminates everyone but the core set of kids and their teacher.
The characters may be your standard school-age tropes: The nerd, the popular kid, the bully, the bold one, etc. But the actors who play those roles do so well, and there’s just enough variation to make those tropes fresh. Tom is caught between his love of science and being somewhat popular. Nas, who has likely been skipped up a few grades and is the youngest kid in class, has no problem being who he is, despite his sister telling him to dial it down a notch. Misha isn’t afraid of anyone or anything.
The rest of the kids’ characters are a bit less defined, but we’re hoping they become more defined as this group tries to figure out how to defeat these orbs and Monkhouse and save humanity. As it is, it’s a fun ride for preteens and teens, as well as their parents.
What Age Group Is This For?: The show is rated TV-G, but we think this show is appropriate for kids 8 and up.
Parting Shot: Nas and Sophie look on in bewilderment as kids and adults run from the orbs.
Sleeper Star: We’ll give this to the bus, which will factor in pretty prominently as the kids’ base of operations.
Most Pilot-y Line: How does an entire double-decker bus full of kids fit onto five or six extended golf carts?
Our Call: STREAM IT. You may not watch The Last Bus on your own, but if you’ve got a sci-fi loving kid in your family, this should be right up their alley. And the performances are pretty good, so you won’t cringe watching it.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.