“During the Cold War, both the CIA and KGB experimented with mind control, hypnosis, and drug therapies to create the ultimate human weapon: assets capable of carrying out the most extreme covert operations, no matter how morally ambiguous.”
This is the opening of Treadstone, the deadly serious spy series USA Network spun off from The Bourne Identity in 2019. Swap out a few key details, though—the SAS for the CIA; South African white supremacists for the KGB—and it could just as easily have set the stage for teen spy drama Alex Rider, now on the free streaming service IMDbTV.
For anyone familiar with Anthony Horowitz’s long-running YA series of the same name, this might be surprising. Slick as the series’ eponymous hero is, after all, he still got his start as a Y2K-era teen spy whose missions generally hinged on how many grappling hook yo-yos, tubes of metal-dissolving zit cream, and diamond-edged buzzsaw Discmen he could cram into his pockets. As far as adaptations might go, never mind The Bourne Identity. Gameboy geiger counters? That’s straight-up Spy Kids territory, my friends. And that, for better or worse, is exactly what fans got in 2006, with the daffy, Alex Pettyfer-starring film, Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker. A blockbuster cast, sure—yes, that is Bill Nighy you spot, and Ewan MacGregor, and Alicia Silverstone, and Stephen Fry, and Missi Pyle—but the only thing any of them are there for is a goofy good time.
This newest take on Alex Rider is something entirely different. More of a piece with what Teen TV has become in in the last decade—slick, serious, cinematic and mature, with a strong bent towards internationalism and diversity—it’s the kind of spy drama you can recommend indiscriminately to your adult friends. So what that its reluctant spy hero is a teenage boy? The show takes him seriously, which means their fictional version of the SAS takes him seriously, which means the deeply realistic bad guys out to literally kill him also take him seriously. And while that much seriousness has the tendency to drag lesser adult action series to an absolute standstill, the hyper-realistic teen antics Alex and his tiny circle of friends get up to, even in the midst of life-or-death situations, serve as useful tonal ballast that lends the series just enough warmth and humor to bolster the rest of the story’s inherent tension. (That the soundtrack is excellent definitely helps.)
And when I say tension, I mean tension. The story the Alex Rider team have chosen to take on for the show’s first season, which mostly comes from the second book of the series, Point Blanc, finds Alex (Otto Farrant) on a mission to embed himself at a mysterious boarding school for troubled, ultra-wealthy youths. Isolated high in the French Alps and run by a virulently racist South African expat named Dr. Greif (Haluk Bilginer), the shadowy Point Blanc academy becomes a point of SAS interest when Alex’s spy uncle is killed after his investigations into the “accidental” deaths of two otherwise unconnected global power players—which had turned up evidence that both died shortly after Point Blanc sent their now-perfect kids back home. (See: Treadstone intro above.)
This all would be bad enough (as a marker for both the level and the flavor of bad guy violence the audience should brace themselves for, we’re shown Alex’s uncle getting shot, point blank, early in the first episode), but this new Alex Rider isn’t interested in painting the world in black and white. As much violence as Alex might eventually endure at the hands of Greif and his villainous lackeys, he spends the first few episodes suffering just as much at the hands of the SAS itself, who first extort him to join their cause by threatening to deport his guardian and remand him to foster care if he doesn’t agree to help them, and who then proceed to kidnap and torture him as a “test” of the spy skills he didn’t know his uncle had trained him to develop. Not to be outdone by a bunch of spies who have so thoroughly lost the thread they’re recruiting kids, the rich family that Alex’s cover story makes him part of turns out to have a daughter whose friends’ idea of a good time is tricking poors like Alex into playing prey in The Most Dangerous Game.
Like I said: Pure Bourne Identity, with just a hint of ELITE. The bad guys are bad, but the good guys aren’t much better. And given how we’re meant to root for a hero who’s been tortured and manipulated into doing any heroing in the first place, we in the audience don’t come off that great, either.
On the one hand, taking the gritty cynicism of The Bourne Identity (and, more specifically, Treadstone) and applying it to a premise as innately goofy as Alex Rider might seem too absurd to countenance. As Carmen, Juni, Kim and K.C. (Undercover) have established, teen spy stories are meant to be fun. Teen spies aren’t real! And if they were, the governments who were recruiting them really would be crossing every moral line imaginable.
And yet, it’s 2020. The reality we’re living in is absurd, and the moral lines Western governments are unwilling to cross turn out to be few are far between. What’s more, the idea that a fascist, white supremacist supervillain might be gathering resources in an isolated fortress and training privileged teens to idolize Hitler and return to the world to use their wealth and the chaos-spreading tools of the social internet to spread his message, that’s, well … depressingly believable. (“From Facebook data to internet oversight,” one cogent instructor at Point Blanc tells her students midway through the season, “what we can see is that, if your message is strong enough, you can take away people’s liberties, and they will applaud you for doing it.”) Look, I don’t like it either! But if watching 2020 torturously unfold for the last eleven months has convinced me of anything, it’s that the existence of rich teen Nazis with a chip on their shoulder and the will to wreck the world ought to be taken much more seriously than any of us might want to believe. Treadstone-Alex Rider gets it.
Of course, Alex Rider is still a spy drama, and as such, is obliged to have its characters make a lot of silly decisions for the sake of plot. But while the inclination might be to blame the inevitable unraveling of Alex’s cover on the fact that Alex is a teen (who almost immediately spills all his spy secrets to his teen best friend (Brenock O’Connor), who in turn almost immediately starts making a secret YouTube video about the life of Alex Rider: Teenage Spy), the truth of the matter is that it’s the egregious short-sightedness of all the adults in these teens’ lives, adults who should just fucking know better, that mucks things up from go. Which, honestly, at this moment in history, feels less like a narrative flaw and more like a grim nod at precisely how we got where we are. The adults in charge—everywhere! for decades!—have done a shit job at taking care of the world, even when they should all know so much better. Who’s to say any of us might not someday have to fashion an ironing board into a snowboard to escape the machine guns of a snowbound mad scientist’s private guard, or fight our [spoiler] to the death in the middle of a high school dance? Honestly, it all tracks.
That said, there are a few elements that jangle more than they should. For one thing, viewers unfamiliar with the Alex Rider books are unlikely to grasp the extent to which his uncle is meant to have secretly trained him for spy work while he was growing up—when Alex reveals just how hardened he is, while being tortured in Episode 2, it comes as a real shock. Too, while Ronke Adekoluejo is a welcome addition to the ensemble as Jack Starbright, an American grad student employed by the Rider family who becomes Alex’s adoptive guardian after his uncle’s death, there are parts of her arc that just ticked boxes when she was a white women—having her visa status tied to her role as a British family’s live-in help, for example, or having that same status used as a threat to push Alex into doing sketchy spy stuff—that hit different when she’s Black, and the show doesn’t really seem to understand that. This is frustrating, as its characterization of Greif and his master plan seems to indicate at least some comprehension of the threat that simmering white supremacism still poses for the world at large, but I suppose one can always hope that a second season could give the writers a chance to reimagine Adekoluejo’s Jack with more thoughtful specificity.
That note of hope is a good one to end on: IMDbTV is new to the original content game, and if Alex Rider is any indication, they’ve got a solid sense of the quality of storytelling they’re seeking out. Hopefully, Alex Rider will get the second season it deserves—it certainly has more story to tell—and hopefully, the streamer’s upcoming Leverage reboot will prove just as broadly entertaining. All that might be a lot to ask of 2020, but 2021? Let’s aim high.
Update: Fans old and new can breathe a sigh of relief: Alex Rider has officially been renewed for a Season 2. Eagle Strike, here we come!
Alex Rider is available streaming on IMDbTV (accessible via imdb.com, Fire TV, or through Prime Video) beginning Friday, November 13th.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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