Teen detective Nancy Drew has been reinvented and reimagined numerous times in print and onscreen since the 1930 debut of her first book series, so The CW's new Nancy Drew series isn't violating any sacred principles by changing elements of Nancy's back story and her supporting cast. The problem isn't that the new Nancy Drew is unfaithful to the source material; the problem is that none of the changes makes Nancy into an interesting character or injects new life into the musty mysteries she investigates. As indicated by the two episodes available for review, Nancy is really just solving one overarching mystery on the first season of the new show, and it's not nearly complex or compelling enough to drive an entire TV season, despite the efforts to create personal connections to nearly every major character.
With its seemingly idyllic small-town setting (the seaside hamlet of Horseshoe Bay, Maine), its frequent plot twists and its darker, more mature take on traditionally squeaky-clean characters, Nancy Drew will inevitably draw comparisons to fellow CW twisted teen drama Riverdale. But at this point it doesn't offer anything nearly as stylish as Riverdale, even in its earliest, slightly more grounded episodes. Horseshoe Bay may be full of secrets, but for now it's just kind of a dull tourist town, seemingly populated by only a handful of people, all of whom know each other. "Do you remember that town in Jaws? It's like that, but with no shark," sneers rich socialite Tiffany Hudson (Sinead Curry), right before she's mysteriously murdered.
Tiffany's murder occurs in the parking lot of the diner where recent high school graduate Nancy (Kennedy McMann) works as a waitress, alongside her snarky frenemy George Fan (Leah Lewis), the snobbish Bess Marvin (Maddison Jaizani) and dopey cook Ace (Alex Saxon). It's also right next door to the garage where Nancy's boyfriend Ned "Nick" Nickerson (Tunji Kasim) works as a mechanic, and all five of the teens find themselves suspects in Tiffany's murder, while Tiffany's rich jerk husband Ryan (Riley Smith) is barely even questioned by the local cops. This version of Nancy has given up her childhood hobby of playing detective, but she reluctantly returns to mystery-solving when her own freedom is on the line.
Tiffany has barely a few minutes of screen time (and just a handful of lines), so it's hard to care about who murdered her or why. As a single-episode mystery, Tiffany's murder could have been a strong introduction to Horseshoe Bay and its various players, including Nancy's lawyer dad Carson Drew (Scott Wolf), supportive police detective Karen Hart (Alvina August), who was friends with Nancy's late mom, and local police Chief McGinnis (Adam Beach), who resents this spunky kid always interfering in his investigations. As the set-up for long-term storytelling, it's severely lacking, even as the end of the pilot dutifully reveals secrets about the various characters that could give them motive for murder.
The characters themselves are only slightly more interesting, although McMann channels a bit of young Amy Adams in her sarcastic, stubborn portrayal of Nancy, and she's appealing enough to make the prospect of watching her solve more mysteries at least slightly inviting. The supporting characters are mostly one-dimensional, and turning the books' friends of Nancy into reluctant allies makes the characters feel cut off from each other, rather than bonded together to solve the mystery of Tiffany's murder. The fact that they all have secrets of varying seriousness that they are keeping hidden also makes it tough for them to come together as an ensemble.
Co-creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (who developed the show along with Noga Landau) have a strong history of putting together smart teen dramas with intriguing characters and sharp dialogue, from The O.C. to Gossip Girl to Runaways, but there's no Seth Cohen or Blair Waldorf or Gert Yorkes in Nancy Drew's ensemble, and aside from that Jaws line (from a character who's immediately killed), the dialogue is pretty bland, full of expository pronouncements and tortured observations about the darkness of the town's history.
That history includes the urban legend of "Dead Lucy," a teenage homecoming queen whose body was never found after she plunged from a cliff to her watery death years ago, and the show's secondary mystery is Nancy's investigation into Dead Lucy, who may or may not be connected to Tiffany's murder. Nancy keeps seeing Lucy's apparition, although it's not clear if anything truly supernatural is meant to be going on. It feels more like the creators are just throwing out whatever they can think of to build up an air of mystery, without necessarily figuring out how it all fits together.
This version of Nancy is edgier than previous incarnations, introduced while in bed with Nick and not reluctant to break laws in pursuit of the truth about what happened to Tiffany Hudson. But making Nancy angrier and more rebellious doesn't make her a stronger character, and taking her away from her roots risks making the show into just a generic slow-burn mystery series with a familiar title.
The creators put in nods to previous iterations of the character, from a reference to a "hidden staircase" (the title of the second-ever Nancy Drew novel, as well as this year's little-seen Nancy Drew movie starring Sophia Lillis) to a cameo from Pamela Sue Martin, who played Nancy in the 1970s TV series The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. But that doesn't amount to anything beyond winking to any longtime Nancy fans who might be tuning in.
That's not the primary audience for a CW show in 2019, of course, and Nancy Drew will only succeed by appealing to a generation of viewers who've never heard of the title character. That worked well for Archie Andrews and friends on Riverdale, but Nancy Drew lacks a similar bold vision. It's a modern update that's halfway stuck in the past.
Starring Kennedy McMann, Scott Wolf, Alex Saxon, Leah Lewis, Maddison Jaizani, Tunji Kasim, Riley Smith and Alvina August, Nancy Drew premieres Wednesday on The CW at 9 p.m. ET/PT.