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TV moves in creative circles. Veronica Mars premieres and everybody’s like, “It’s Nancy Drew through a grown-up prism.” And Riverdale premieres and everybody’s like, “It’s Archie by way of Veronica Mars and Twin Peaks!” Now, as The CW aims to bring Nancy Drew back to TV, it’s hard not to look at this incarnation of the teenage gumshoe as Veronica Mars by way of Riverdale, which is probably more helpful shorthand for a new generation than simply going back to, “It’s Nancy Drew through a grown-up prism.”
That’s the shorthand and it’s also probably the review. There are elements to this sexed-up and murdered-up version of Nancy Drew that feel entertaining and nicely updated and the cast is decent, albeit extraordinarily CW-y. But somehow fiction’s original teenage girl detective has been brought back to TV in a way that feels primarily derivative.
AIR DATE Oct 09, 2019
Adapted from the “Carolyn Keene” — feel free to credit individual authors within the pseudonym as you see fit — novels by Noga Landau, with Fake Empire’s Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage as producers, Nancy Drew begins with our heroine in the middle of an unplanned gap year between high school and the rest of her life. After allowing her grades, life and popularity to fall apart during her mother’s terminal illness, Nancy (Kennedy McMann) is now working as a waitress at the Bayside Claw along with wealthy airhead Bess (Maddison Jaizani), blue-collar airhead Ace (Alex Saxon) and local bad girl George (Leah Lewis), all familiar names for readers. Book Nancy’s longtime steady Ned Nickerson (Tunji Kasim) is here as well, initially as more of a regular booty call with a troubled past. Yes, this Nancy Drew has booty calls.
This Nancy Drew also still has a history of solving crimes in Horseshoe Bay, juvenile sleuthing that earned her the ire of the local police chief (Adam Beach) and the concern of her attorney father (Scott Wolf). Determined to get her life back on track, Nancy swore off crime-fighting, but when the wife of a prominent wealthy seasonal resident (Riley Smith’s Ryan Hudson) is murdered in front of the Claw, Nancy becomes a suspect. And Bess becomes a suspect! And Nick becomes a suspect! And George becomes a suspect! It’s pretty much like Oprah’s lamest audience giveaway ever. So Nancy has to clear her name and clear their names and, naturally, the crime also has ties to the town’s most legendary death, a pageant queen who is rumored to still haunt the community.
One of the biggest challenges facing the creative team is deceptively simple: TV doesn’t lack for detectives, irrespective of age or gender or amateur status. What makes a teenage girl detective “Nancy Drew” if you want the brand name to mean anything?
It works best here when Nancy’s investigative process is at its most quaint. Nancy Drew should be the master of finding hidden compartments or uncovering sealed lockets or the most rudimentary of breaking-and-entering, poking around in attics and under stairwells. When she’s doing that here, even as it’s coupled with a more hard-boiled and sarcastic voiceover, Nancy Drew has a little charm. I also enjoyed the sense of Nancy’s detective history in the community, the news clippings of past successes or side references to ostensibly silly cases she cracked. I always enjoy a “youthful prodigy gone to seed” story, which reminds me that if Schwartz and Savage aren’t developing Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids for TV, they should be.
Keeping Nancy’s methodology intentionally archaic — which isn’t done nearly enough in the two episodes sent to critics — is also a decent cover for a flimsy main mystery. The reason Veronica Mars works as well as it does in the first season is because the primary cases she’s solving relate directly and inextricably to her own past and her personal trauma and not just like, “Gee, Nancy Drew. Even though you’ve only been a force for good in this community previously, we’re going to consider you a suspect in a MURDER because of general proximity.” Having Nancy become a suspect in a murder points mostly to the need to impose Riverdale-esque heightened stakes for a core audience that knows Nancy Drew as a failed Emma Roberts movie.
It’s actually a relief that pilot director Larry Teng doesn’t force Riverdale-esque hyper-stylization on Nancy Drew, which has a simple and atmospheric look, giving its Vancouver settings just enough resemblance to a seaside Maine town — one of those TV towns with weekly commemorative ceremonies and nonstop superstitions — to avoid blatant annoyance. There are a few intended scares contributed by the story’s supernatural elements, helpful because the generic mystery doesn’t generate any real tension on its own.
Leading the cast, newcomer McMann is good, if not instantly distinctive. She’s better when Nancy gets to be a little edgier and she nicely conveys the rush that Nancy gets when she’s following clues, almost like an addiction. For all of their illicit nookie and the suggestion that Nick is some sort of “bad boy,” Kasim and McMann generate no heat at all and could be playing a chaste, retro version of this familiar coupling, but they have a decent and friendly chemistry instead.
Of the supporting Scooby Gang, Lewis brings some welcome humor and I’m still waiting for Saxon and Jaizani to make much impression. It’s a cast designed for a CW promotional photo, one that would probably feature Wolf off to the side with arms crossed sternly. The Party of Five veteran has a good set-jawed earnestness and he fulfills the necessary CW hunky parent mandate of making viewers of a certain age feel very old — like the title won’t do that already.
Cast: Kennedy McMann, Scott Wolf, Alex Saxon, Leah Lewis, Maddison Jaizani, Tunji Kasim, Riley Smith, Alvina August
Creator: Noga Landau
Airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW, premiering Oct. 9.
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