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Is ‘The Boys’ Secretly the Best Show on TV?

As Season Four begins, we talk to the cast and creators behind the politically charged superhero satire that’s become TV’s grossest, craziest, smartest show

The Boys

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Behind a heavy steel door, inside the Los Angeles headquarters of the sixth-largest company in the world, television’s most terrifying villain is wincing and shifting in his chair. His ass hurts. During a trip to Mexico last week, Antony Starr, the New Zealand-born actor who plays Homelander on Prime’s The Boys, sat on a box that turned out to be a thin piece of cardboard covering a portable generator. “The handle went flush up my backside onto my tailbone,” he says, adjusting his position again. “So I’m doing a lot of angled cheek sitting.” He laughs. “Way more than you needed to know.”

Starr tends to get at least mildly offended when people assume he’s anything like his evil-Superman character, a smiling, volatile sadist with unlimited power, profound emotional damage, and a freaky breast-milk fetish, all draped in an American-flag cape. On set, day players and new crew members treat him like he’s really Homelander, scurrying out of his way in fear as he walks by in costume. Off-duty, he tries to create as much physical distance from the character as possible, even to the point of shaving his head at season’s end. At the moment, he’s grown a stubbly beard, with his hair back to its natural brown instead of the character’s Aryan blond; his tinted glasses blunt the impact of the ice-blue eyes they share. “People are surprised, like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re actually not like him,’’ says Starr, a 48-year-old hardcore Queens of the Stone Age fan. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s a psychopathic narcissist. So yeah, thanks. Thank you for that.’ ” He smiles at the idea that the tailbone incident offers objective proof of that reality. “I actually don’t have superpowers,” he says. “I have a very sensitive rump.”

In the world of The Boys, based on the gleefully scabrous 2000s indie comic-book series of the same name by writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson, superheroes are real, pop-culture-dominating, and with rare exceptions, entirely unheroic. They’re all the creation of Vought International, a many-tentacled corporation that probably offers free two-day shipping when it’s not deluding the public into worshiping the “supes” as celebrities, and, increasingly, culture-war political figures. In the show’s fourth season, (which kicks off today), Homelander, an ever-more obvious Trump analogue, begins to plot outright fascist rule of the United States, with the assistance of a Bible-thumping, conspiracy-mongering new character, Firecracker (Valorie Curry), explicitly modeled on the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene.

With its bald political analogies, not to mention an adolescent preoccupation with splattery eviscerations and novel sexual grotesqueries — extending, in Season Four, to a glimpse of a self-replicating supe engaging in a one-man human-chain orgy — The Boys could never be accused of subtlety. But somehow, the show’s depiction of post-MAGA America as a tragicomic, blood-soaked carnival of lies comes off as more true-to-life than any other. When its provocations hit just right, it can feel like it’s secretly the very best show on television, and without a doubt, the most entertaining. Just ask Barack Obama, who astonished the show’s creators when he touted it on one of his year-end lists, which then led them to wonder what he made of the episode with a giant exploding penis prop.

“I had no idea it was based off a comic book when I first read the script,” says one of the show’s leads, Jack Quaid, who plays Hughie Campbell, a gentle-hearted Billy Joel fan who’s the most unlikely recruit to the titular Boys, a law-flouting crew of anti-supe insurgents led by the amoral, Homelander-hunting Billy Butcher (Karl Urban). From some angles, Jack looks a lot like his dad, Dennis Quaid, but his vibe is pure young Tom Hanks. “I thought someone just made a show about America. And put superheroes into it.”

That’s pretty much how the show’s creator sees it. “The superhero trappings are literally just the suit it wears,” says showrunner Eric Kripke, previously best known for the long-running, much-loved CW show Supernatural. “It’s about politics and authoritarianism and media, and an almost Simpsons– or South Park-like desire to parody things of the moment. And Sam Raimi ultraviolence. The reason I’m in genre, period, is because with monsters or demons or superheroes, you’re able to say subversive shit that all the people writing the classy-ass prestige shit can never get away with saying. And that, to me, is the fun of it.”

The skull-eyed cynicism of its behind-the-curtains gaze at societal power ends up making The Boys oddly reminiscent of one of the best “classy-ass prestige” productions of the era. “It really delves into the dynamics of power and grief and hope and betrayal, wrapped up in a show that’s also about exploding dicks,” says Claudia Doumit, who plays Victoria Neuman, a charismatic, vaguely AOC-like politician who secretly can make people’s heads explode with her mind. “It’s Succession — with exploding penises.”

THE BOYS‘ NARRATIVE MOMENTUM is ruthless. In last season’s cliffhanger ending, Homelander commits a laser-eyes murder in broad daylight, but he’s acquitted so rapidly at the start of Season Four that we don’t see a second of the actual trial. “There was only one way that trial could end,” says Kripke, sitting in his West L.A. production office. Nearby is a writers room I’m barred from entering because there are already ideas for Season Five on the whiteboards, even though the show is still a week away from being officially renewed. “If he was guilty and he went to jail — one, he wouldn’t stay, and two, he’d be a criminal and on the run, and that’s just not the show we want to make. So he can only be innocent. And when there’s an ending that is a fait accompli, I immediately say to the room, let’s get through it as fast as possible.” The murder was, of course, a nod to Trump’s comment about how he could shoot someone “in the middle of Fifth Avenue” without losing support, and, indeed, we see Homelander’s fans cheering for the bloodshed. In the new season, when chaos breaks out after the verdict, Homelander tells the crowd, “You’re all very special people,” a nod to Trump on Jan. 6.

Homelander isn’t scary because he’s powerful. He’s scary because he’s weak.

When Kripke started developing the TV version of The Boys in 2015, four years before its debut, he thought he was working on a parody of celebrity culture and superheroes themselves. “It wasn’t until I started to get more and more in Homelander’s head that we said, ‘Wait, they’re using their celebrity for authoritarian ends,’ ” he says. “Which is a phenomenon that bubbles up now and again in history but, when we started this thing, was not in the front of everyone’s minds. And then suddenly it was. And we’re looking at each other like, ‘Did we stumble into the metaphor that best describes the moment we’re actually living in?’ Then it just got really exciting.”

Increasingly, Kripke began seeing Homelander as Donald Trump. “He’s not scary because he’s powerful,” he says. “He’s scary because he’s weak. Our interpretation was, if you have that much power, you would feel inevitably disconnected and superior to humanity. But the more you become dis­connected from humanity, the more you hate the parts of yourself that are human. If you combine all that, you’ll come up with malignant narcissism.”

Some right-wing fans of The Boys were vocally unhappy online when Kripke made the already-obvious-to-most Trump connection explicit in a 2022 interview with this publication. As it turns out, Starr himself isn’t always thrilled with it either. “For me, it’s a bit of a red herring,” he says, “because if we strictly stayed in that lane, the character would be one- or two-dimensional, and we wanted to create something more layered. Whatever parallels there are to the real world, it has to be driven by our characters.”

Starr’s reminders along those lines have helped push the show to stay focused on Homelander’s decidedly non-Trumpian characteristics, like the fact that he was raised, entirely unloved and parentless, in a laboratory — which we learn more about in a gruesome, revenge-laden return to that setting in Season Four. “I’ll give Ant credit,” says Kripke. “He’ll speak up, and he’ll say, ‘Eric, they are different people.’ It’s easy to fall into a Saturday Night Live trap of being a parody, but I actually owe the psychological truth of the character first and foremost.”

Much of Starr’s ever-wounded, ever-deadly performance was present from his self-taped initial audition for the part. “He rang so true of that American patriotism and optimism meets American Psycho,” says Kripke. “Because he was charming, but then his smile would just get a little too big. Or there was nothing behind his eyes.” But it wasn’t until a scene in the show’s second episode where Homelander is accurately accused of downing a plane that Kripke really saw how far Starr could take it. “He has this take where it’s 20 seconds of just eight different expressions on his face — ‘I’m sorry, Mommy’ and also ‘Yes, I totally did it,’ ” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this guy is so capturing the snake’s nest of insecurity and victimization and power that is Homelander.”

Billy Butcher (played by Karl Urban), the show’s amoral Homelander hunter

For Starr, what makes Homelander terrifying is his unpredictability, the looming sense that he might suddenly murder anyone in his vicinity. He works to inhabit the character so fully that he’s never quite sure himself how he’ll approach any given moment on set. “We try and set it up so that in the scenes, like, I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Starr says. “Like, I’m not sure what I’m gonna do.”

Of course, all that actorly effort has to be paired with frequently pretending that you’re shooting deadly lasers out of your eyeballs — “literally standing there doing this little head move and looking very serious,” Starr says. When Karl Urban’s Butcher got superpowers last season, he told Starr, “Fuck, I had no idea how stupid I was going to feel doing laser eyes.” “I’m like, ‘Welcome to my world, my brother,’ ” recalls Starr.

Starr is slippery on the subject of how much Homelander might reflect any dark side of his own, but suggests it’s overly facile to find any evidence in his widely reported 2022 bar fight in Spain, in which he punched a 21-year-old man twice and hit him with a glass, resulting in assault charges and a suspended sentence. “We live in a soundbite age,” he says, elliptically, “where people read a headline and then they make a decision, and the decision is concrete and that’s who someone is. I would rather shut up than speak out of turn about something that’s super complicated.”

If he shares anything with Homelander, it’s “vulnerability,” says Starr, who can’t help seeing the character as a victim, a “poor little kid that was damaged so badly and just used for his entire life. He’s mentally ill. He’s been through a hell of a lot. It all ties back to something I actually do personally care about and wanted to try and honor as much as possible — the damage and mental-health issues that come up from the kind of treatment that he’s had. And we all struggle. We all struggle. I think that’s probably why people strangely empathize with the character. Some people got it completely wrong at one point and were championing him like he was the hero, and that was a bad thing! That was wrong. But I do get a lot of people saying they have very conflicted feelings about him.”

THE BOYS COMIC-BOOK SERIES was very much a product of peak George W. Bush-era culture. It began in August 2006, after voters declined to vote for change, with the Iraq War raging and Hurricane Katrina fresh on the minds of its creators. The ruling class was indifferent, if not actively malevolent — why would superheroes be any different? Darick Robertson, the series’ artist and co-creator, finds it depressing how well the TV series came to fit a new era. “It just feels like we’re in this doom loop as a culture,” he says, “because all the stuff that happened during the Bush years laid the ground for what’s happening in the Trump years.”

It’s power, grief, hope, and betrayal in a show about exploding dicks.

The earliest idea for The Boys from Garth Ennis, a boundary-pushing Irish writer, was bold but wildly unworkable, Robertson recalls: He imagined the Boys as a team of anti-superhero investigators in the actual DC Comics universe, where the stories would imply, without ever stating outright, that characters like Superman and Batman were secretly evil and perverse. Robertson says he suggested they instead create analogues of DC Comics characters, with Super­man becoming Homelander, Aquaman becoming the amphibious character the Deep, and so on. Homelander was originally Liberator, and his costume had “very obvious nationalistic, Nazi-referencing symbolism,” says Robertson. “As he evolved, I put him in the American cape, because I love that line about how the last refuge of a scoundrel is patriotism.”

Seth Rogen and his producing partner, Evan Goldberg, were already fans of Ennis, and bought the first issue at Golden Apple, a comic-book store on Melrose Avenue in L.A., the day it came out. “We were like, ‘Holy shit, this is fucking crazy,’ ” says Rogen. “And that week we went to Sony and we’re like, ‘You guys should make this.’ ”

“And they were like, ‘We should … with someone else,’ ” recalls Goldberg.

Sony did buy the rights to the property, which went through a series of incarnations over a decade before ending up back in the hands of Rogen, Goldberg, and Kripke. For a while, director Adam McKay was trying to turn The Boys into a trilogy of movies — the first one went as far as a finished screenplay and even demo animatics of scenes — but he wasn’t able to get it greenlighted in a pre-MCU Hollywood. “I wouldn’t change how it worked out,” says Robertson, “because the show is amazing. But he was doing really cool stuff. It just came down to it being 2008, not 2018. I just don’t think they were ready for it yet.”

Starr in a bloody scene from Season Two. COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS

FOR THE SHOW’S CAST, The Boys offers a chance at both meaty character work and certain unique indignities. In Episode One, in the inciting incident of the entire story, the show’s Flash-style character, A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), accidentally runs at super-speed straight through a civilian’s body, with predictably horrific consequences. The civilian in question happens to be Hughie Campbell’s girlfriend, and he’s holding hands with her at the moment of collision. “They loaded up those huge, like, cylinder air cannons full of blood and guts and stuff,” says Usher. “And they’re like, ‘When you run by, we’re going to shoot Jack in the face with this.’ It was that moment, me and Jack sitting on set, 12 hours covered in blood, when we were like, ‘Whoa, this is different.’ ”

Usher’s character has spent the show hurtling toward either damnation or redemption for his many sins. At the beginning, he modeled A-Train’s indifference toward humanity on young professional athletes. “In the NBA, they show the players walking through the tunnel leading up to the game,” he says, “and it’s like they don’t even see people. They’re just above the world. That’s kind of what I think A-Train is like.” Fans of the show are constantly challenging Usher to race, and he always demurs. “I hate running,” he says. “I’m only fast on TV. I don’t even run on the treadmill. Like, I would do anything but run for cardio.”

There is no character more absurd on The Boys, or possibly on any show ever, than its Aquaman analogue, the Deep. He’s (hilariously) played by Chace Crawford, formerly of Gossip Girl, who instantly recognized the character’s pretty-boy, none-too-bright brand of ultratoxic masculinity in part from his old teen-star milieu. “You do get put in a bit of a box, in the eyes of people in the industry,” Crawford says. “It was very meta for me, within this show, to kind of make fun of that type of person.”

In the series’ first episode, the Deep coerces one of the show’s few morally upright characters, Starlight (Erin Moriarty), into a sex act, casting-couch style. As Starlight reckons with the trauma he inflicted, the Deep spirals through an endless series of well-­deserved humiliations, including a scene where he’s caught in graphic sexual congress with an octopus. “I was, like, in denial about it,” says Crawford. “It got 24 hours out, and I kind of almost had a panic attack. I called Kripke and I was like, ‘What are the angles gonna be? How naked do I have to be?’ ” The show employs an intimacy coordinator — “but not with the octopus,” Crawford says.

For Moriarty, playing Starlight — arguably the only real superhero on the show — is a deep commitment. “I’m experiencing something with this character that I haven’t before, which is that I’m very protective of her,” says Moriarty. “I know this is a young woman who is going through things other young women have gone through. So I feel like it’s my job to do it justice as best that I can. The second I don’t grasp the emotional stakes in a scene that entails a horrific, traumatizing situation, I don’t feel like I’ve done my job.”

Facing 16-hour days with sometimes emotionally brutal material, particularly in the new season, Moriarty is willing to go to extreme lengths to make it work. “I ended up buying smelling salts off of Amazon,” she says, “because I was listening to this podcast where these guys were talking about how it makes them feel like the Hulk. And I had to feel like the Hulk in certain moments of the upcoming season.” She laughs. “I would smell the smelling salts and be like ‘Aaaah,’ and go do the scene. I definitely killed brain cells. I’m a nut job when it comes to prep.”

One constant since the first season is the romance between Starlight and Hughie, which manages to provide some rare moments of sweetness amidst the show’s madness. The stars say that part isn’t hard. ”I think a lot of people look at us and they think, like, ‘Are they dating?’” says Moriarty. ”Because the chemistry is so on point. But it’s because he’s one of my best friends, and I love him so much, and I would do anything for him. He’s like the brother I never had.”

”I agree with that,” says Quaid (who’s actually dating another actress on the show, Claudia Doumit), ”but I sometimes don’t say that when I’m being interviewed because I’m like, ‘It’s weird though, because we kiss on camera a lot.’” The pair does their best to keep the Hughie-Starlight relationship from feeling saccharine. ”We really wanted to make sure that they don’t feel cutesy or too wholesome,” Quaid adds. ”They do need to be the good people, but they can’t be the good and boring people. I like every time we give them a little bit of an edge, a little bit of a spice. This season definitely has that.”

Our show is punk rock. We deserve extra scorn if we sell out.

Moriarty manages to radiate Christopher Reeve-worthy levels of sheer goodness as Starlight, but she’s grateful that the character is far from perfect. ”The fact that she can be so unambiguously good and make mistakes, that has been healing for me to play,” says Moriarty, who’s not alone in finding her role therapeutic. Karen Fukuhara, who plays the mute, super-strong, formerly feral Kimiko, finds a welcome catharsis in her character’s gore-splattered murder sprees. ”Maybe it comes from being a woman, and maybe it comes from being Japanese, but a lot of times we have to filter our emotions,” Fukuhara says. ”And Kimiko has none of that. She hasn’t really grown up within the patriarchy or, truly, any kind of social construct. And therefore she has no filter. And I admire that about her. She is constantly fighting for her life, and sometimes it requires a little bit of rage to spill out. And, in her case, to take off some heads.”

No one on The Boys is Method, not even Starr, for all his intensity. And by all accounts, the cast gets along unusually well. “There’s always someone who’s a dick,” says Starr, pausing before he cracks up the room with his punchline: “In this case, at least it’s me.”

“I WORRY A LOT,” says Kripke, “about becoming the thing that we’re satirizing. Like, daily, I worry about it.” He’s sitting in The Boys’ production office, a glass-lined suite in a West L.A. office building, not far from the famously absurd grocery store Erewhon. At 50, he still carries himself more like a journeyman TV writer than the mini mogul he’s become, in a loose gray T-shirt, jeans, and New Balances. On the shelves in his office are Stephen King and James Ellroy novels (the latter was a major influence on Ellis for The Boys), a full collection of The Boys comic-book series, various awards, and a replica Han Solo blaster — Kripke is a lifelong Star Wars fan and fully intends to do something in that universe one day.

What he’s worried about, mostly, is the expansion of the Boys franchise beyond the original series, and the way it echoes the Vought Cinematic Universe of the show. “I say it all the time to people on a lot of calls, like, our brand is punk rock,” he says. “We deserve extra scorn if we sell out.”  In addition to the animated anthology Diabolical, the show already spawned a successful live-action spinoff, Gen-V, set at a college for supes in the Boys universe. As Kripke speaks, the latter show is days away from starting production on its second season, but an unexpected tragedy has irrevocably altered it: One of the leads, Chance Perdomo, died in a motorcycle accident in late March. “First and foremost, it’s just an incredible tragedy, just horrific,“ Kripke says. “And my heart goes out to his family. He was a 27-year-old kid, and it’s awful. That takes precedence over everything. Losing someone’s really hard. What we do is writing on paper. It’s easy.“ The writers decided not to recast the role. “Chance can’t be replaced. We had written the first four scripts, and so we’re revising them furiously to to make sure it’s a new storyline that really honors the character. But as you can imagine, that’s major changes.“

There are multiple other possible spinoffs in the works, including something called The Boys Mexico. “No one’s pushing us to come up with these shows,” Kripke says. “We’re pushing ourselves, because we love the world. It’s so fun to play in. So we inevitably chat about what corners of the world would be interesting. And we just let those things evolve.”

The Boys will end with Season Five, and Kripke seems to know where it’s all headed. “I have an ending in mind, I’ll say that,” he says. “I want it to be satisfying, right? I mean, you could count the great series finales on one hand. So it’s a real hard target. And I would want it to be emotionally satisfying but also surprising in how I’m delivering it.”

Before the actors got definitive word that they were only getting one more season, some of them wanted it to go on as long as possible, even as they recognized how hard that would’ve been. “I feel like one thing that we’ve been able to do is not be repetitive,“ says Laz Alonso, whose tough-guy-with-OCD character, Mother’s Milk, takes over from Butcher as leader of the Boys in the new season. “That’s tough, especially when you strike a chord that people like — you want to give them what they come for. But at the same time, you don’t want to start repeating old jokes, old schticks. You still want to be able to get those ‘oh shit I didn’t see that coming’ moments — and that’s tough.“

Kripke hints that the show’s ending could be a happy one, even if that comes with some serious sacrifice. “Anything worth having is worth fighting for,“ he says. “When something good in the show happens, I always ask, ‘What’s the cost?’” But unlike the bleak, only-the-good-die-young world of, say, Game of Thrones, he believes he’s ultimately presided over “a moral universe where when you choose love, family, and mercy, good things happen to you. And when you choose vengeance and hate, that causes as much harm to you as it does to the person you’re trying to enact vengeance on.”

If there’s a bigger message amidst all of the show’s lurid horrors, it’s this: “We’re trying to deconstruct the notion that a hero can solve the world’s ills in one grand, dramatic fell swoop,” Kripke says, dropping his usual air of wryness for a moment. “That’s just not how life works. Life works from a bunch of scared people doing a million boring things every single day that try to make the world just slightly better, and getting knocked down and getting up every time to do it again.” He smiles. “And that, to me, is how the world gets saved.”

Additional reporting by Miles Klee.

From Rolling Stone US