What makes a kids TV show?
As someone who watches a lot of it, I can tell you that there’s a dearth of shows from, say, when your child wants to watch Paw Patrol to when they watch Liv & Maddie. And there’s even a bigger chasm from watching Disney Channel hijinks to when they are ready for reruns of The Office or Gilmore Girls.
Just because a series stars children doesn’t make it a children’s series. Hulu is quick to call its new adaptation of The Hardy Boys a kids TV show aimed at ages 10-plus. But the opening moments feature an elaborate, violent shoot out and a boat explosion that kills everyone who wasn’t shot to death. Parent opinions may vary on whether that is something they want their 10-year-old to watch.
This new adaptation—very loosely based on the book series which premiered in 1927 and has evolved with different authors and permutations since—follows 16-year-old Frank Hardy (Rohan Campbell) and his 12-year-other brother Joe (Alexander Elliot). Their dad Fenton Hardy (James Tupper) is a detective, which makes the boys naturally curious youngsters. Of note, their ages are younger than in the books or even The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries series that ran in the late 1970s and starred Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson, both of whom were in their twenties when they played the brothers.
The series kicks off with a plot point that Disney movies have made a staple, which is this misguided notion that a parent has to die in order for a character’s journey to begin. And so it is that Laura Hardy (Janet Porter), who has been alive and well in all previous adaptations, meets her tragic demise 17 minutes into the pilot. The mother’s death kicks off the mystery that spans multiple episodes and turns the brother into junior detectives. Along the way, there is a parachuting airplane passenger, an ancient magical artifact, an aptly named nefarious Tall Man (Stephen R. Hart), and a grandmother (Linda Thorson) who may know more than she seems.
The young actors range from simply blank faced to great. Elliot is a standout, as he is the one most often tasked with providing the show with comic relief all while advancing the plot. He delivers the show’s funnier dialogue with an impish grin: “We overheard something and we didn’t move. So if anything we were just lazy,” he tells his dad after he and his brother are admonished for spying.
Although not overtly stated, the soundtrack of “Sister Christian” combined with station wagons, pay phones, land lines, and lack of social media sets the show in the 1980s. The boys are not able to Google their way to solving the crime, meaning they have to rely on clues like a library punch card and scraps of paper their mother left behind. This fact alone may puzzle younger viewers who are used to have all answers at their finger tips. But the decade combined with the ragtag group of friends Frank and Joe meet once they move to Bridgeport to live with their Aunt Trudy (Bea Santos) makes the series more like a knock-off Stranger Things than an inspired take on a beloved book series.
While thankfully more innocent than say the CW’s sexed-up Nancy Drew and Riverdale adaptations, the show still wildly shifts in tone, seemingly caught in between a kids’ detective show and something much darker. It’s scary enough to give younger viewers nightmares; a climatic scene in the third episode takes place at a carnival with Joe being chased in a fun house. A fun house with nefarious clowns would have my kids not sleeping for weeks. But it’s also not intriguing enough for older viewers who prefer their murder mysteries to be more on The Undoing spectrum.
Ideally the show would have hit that The Baby-Sitters Club sweet spot which, by simultaneously being forward thinking and nostalgic, delightfully appealed to both pre-teens and the adults who grew up loving the books. That’s a difficult tone to get right, and unfortunately The Hardy Boys isn’t quite up to the task.
The real mystery remains: Who was the intended audience for The Hardy Boys?
The Hardy Boys premieres Friday, December 4th on Hulu.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.