Few shows in today’s crowded television landscape have the narrative inertia, ambition, and imagination to average 22 episodes per season for five seasons, let alone reach double-digits while doing it. That Supernatural managed to beat the odds time and again and last 15 seasons is a credit to everyone involved, from stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki (who carried the series on their backs), to the show’s dedicated fandom and its writing staff, which continued to tap into wells of creativity until late into the show’s run. For years, The CW tried to replicate the magic that kept the series alive, developing backdoor pilots for two spinoffs that would ultimately never make it to series. However, the show’s legacy does live on at the young-skewing network, albeit in a show that no one saw coming: Nancy Drew.
When The CW announced in 2018 that it was adapting the popular book series about a young female sleuth and giving it a supernatural bent, it felt a bit like a slap in the face to fans of the novels that many grew up reading. The fact that Nancy—who is played by Kennedy McMann in the show—is also on the outs with her father Carson (Scott Wolf) at the start of the series had a similar displeasing effect. These changes might have been what kept curious viewers who might have otherwise watched the show from engaging early on—I know it kept me from tuning in initially. After all, the character of Nancy Drew is a cultural icon. The many books ghostwritten under the Carolyn Keene pseudonym are well-known and come with enough associated nostalgia that the show arguably does not need a hook or gimmick to draw attention to it. But it turns out that by infusing the drama series with the right amount of supernatural hijinks and a splash of horror, Nancy Drew has carried on the legacy of the network’s longest-running property and amassed a small but loyal audience in the process.
In the span of three seasons, Nancy Drew has taken the hallmarks of Supernatural and made them its own, beginning with an ability to mix unique mysteries of the week with compelling mythology tied to its heroine. The show swiftly but methodically introduces fans to the idea of the supernatural being responsible for the strange goings-on around its setting of Horseshoe Bay, Maine, employing well-timed jump-scares in a serialized storyline that finds Nancy investigating the murder of a wealthy socialite. At the same time, she’s haunted by the ghost of Lucy Sable, a young woman who fell from a seaside cliff 20 years before the start of the series, and who wants the famous girl detective to solve the mystery of her death.
The writers soon became confident enough to add more supernatural elements to the narrative. The first season features hauntings, yes, but also possessions and vengeful sea witches, and it is all wrapped up in a carefully plotted mystery that leads to shocking personal revelations for Nancy while uncovering deeper connections to Horseshoe Bay. Midway through Season 2, though, Nancy Drew began embracing a monster-of-the-week format that complemented its overarching serialized narrative, which came to include the soul of a dead French woman taking up residence in one of the show’s main characters, an example of the writers’ increasing confidence and go-for-broke mentality.
Featuring more traditional standalone stories was no doubt meant to attract new viewers with no knowledge of Season 1. Although Nancy Drew was not the first to do this, it is one of the few to benefit as a result, as the format created an environment ripe for creativity. In one memorable episode, Nancy inhales the lust of a century’s worth of women after destroying a cursed wedding gown, which leads to her wanting to have sex with every man on the show. It’s played for laughs, but it’s also a vehicle to tell a story about the repression of women and sex positivity. (Nancy Drew gives great social and cultural commentary when it wants to.) In another outing, an ancient creature that kills anyone who knows its name leads to an hour that draws inspiration from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s iconic “Tabula Rasa” and the movie Groundhog Day, as Nancy and the Drew Crew—which includes her old high school nemesis-turned-boss George (Leah Lewis), her former boyfriend Nick (Tunji Kasim), her best friend Bess (Maddison Jaizani), and the mysterious but sweet hacker Ace (Alex Saxon)—erase their memories only to live through the same experience over and over until they find a way to defeat the creature.
The currently airing third season continues to feature one-and-done supernatural baddies, but with episodes that tie into the show’s overarching mythology involving the Women in White, a group who once practiced witchcraft and who had deep ties to the town. Nancy’s ancestor Temperance Hudson (Bo Martynowska), who has returned with ambiguous and potentially deadly plans after regaining her youth, was once a member but was cast out by the others. In less capable hands, a show like this would likely fall apart under the weight of its ambitious interwoven storylines. But like Supernatural before it, the series’ writers have figured out how and when to deploy the show’s well-honed sense of humor alongside the mythology and oddities of Horseshoe Bay, which has been so well established by now that viewers don’t even blink when the latest threat blows into town.
For instance, in Season 3, Horseshoe Bay is terrorized by a serial killer and no one bats an eye when it’s revealed to be a supernatural creature that freezes hearts before ripping them out. Elsewhere, Ace casually references that nor’easters are known to blow spirits ashore. No one in the audience questions these things because this is Horseshoe Bay, where weird stuff happens every single day. Of course, most of the “weird stuff” isn’t much different from what occurs in other supernatural-themed programs. But what separates Nancy Drew from the rest of the pack is the way the show embraces the strange and absurd and has a lot of fun while doing it, even going meta at times—something Supernatural came to excel at during its run, too.
While there’s not yet been a Nancy Drew version of “The French Mistake,” the Season 3 episode ”The Gambit of the Tangled Souls” finds Nancy’s adoptive father Carson and birth father Ryan Hudson (Riley Smith) reverting to their teenage selves after accidentally inhaling a magical elixir. It’s reminiscent of Buffy’s “Band Candy,” (you can sense a theme here, as Nancy Drew also owes a lot of its success to the pop-culture touchstone) but it stands out because the costume designer dresses both men in clothing that calls back to the actors’ experiences starring in Party of Five and Motocrossed, respectively.
But an affinity for the supernatural and a willingness to embrace weirdness are not the only things that tie Nancy Drew to the Winchesters; parent-child relationships are pivotal to both series and carry a significant amount of emotional weight. Supernatural was always about Sam and Dean, but its core narrative was driven by the lingering trauma of their mother’s death and their father dedicating his life to hunting the demon who murdered her, killing all sorts of monsters along the way. This meant crisscrossing America in a 1967 Chevy Impala with his two young sons in the backseat and living out of motel rooms, a stunted lifestyle that deprived Sam and Dean of a normal, stable childhood and created a lifetime of daddy issues that left ample room for emotional conflict over the years.
Although her mother (Sara Canning) dies from pancreatic cancer and not at the hands of a demon, Nancy’s relationship with her father is strained as a result of how and when she died, and the way it disrupted her carefully laid plans for the future. Nancy’s resentment and grief hang over the series, and things only become more complicated once she discovers she’s adopted and that Lucy Sable is her birth mother. This adds yet another layer of trauma, as the anger Nancy feels as a result of how her parents handled the situation further erodes her already limited trust in people while the belief that she is somehow broken is exacerbated by her newfound family lineage, which isn’t exactly the stuff of Hallmark movies. But if Sam and Dean had each other and an extended family of hunters, Nancy finds her own version of family amid her friends at The Claw, the seaside diner at which she works after delaying college in the wake of Kate’s death. Together they can defeat anything, whether it’s of this world or not.
But perhaps the biggest connection between Nancy Drew and Supernatural—and what ultimately makes both shows work—is that they know their audience as well as they know themselves. They know what viewers like and connect to, which is bold, creative storytelling that is rarely low on physical or emotional stakes but never forgets to have fun, either. And it’s this willingness to swing for the fences and embrace what might be beyond belief for shows with shakier foundations that makes Nancy Drew feel most like Supernatural’s true successor. It’s also a quality that was notably absent from both of the long-running drama’s potential spin-offs.
It’s clear by now that no direct spin-off would likely have worked anyway. Not only were the Winchesters the heart and soul of Supernatural (and any program that didn’t feature them but existed in their world would have been hurt by their absence), but neither backdoor pilot was creative or ambitious enough to carry on the show’s legacy. The only way to do so was by allowing room for the next generation to come along and employ the best parts of the show—its ability to mix unique standalone episodes with compelling, complex overarching mythology and family conflict; a well-timed sense of humor; and a willingness to get weird—and make them their own. And luckily for us, that’s exactly what Nancy Drew has done.
Nancy Drew airs on The CW on Fridays, or can be streamed on cwtv.com
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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