It’s hard not to root for Nancy Drew, in all her iterations. She finds clues! She solves mysteries! She keeps a level head! That remains true—unlike a certain old clock, she is timeless—but beyond that, it’s hard not to root for “Nancy Drew,” a new addition to The CW’s lineup of shows in which hot youngsters with tragic or shadowy backstories get into and out of trouble. Some of that comes down to an appealing blend of influences that run through showrunner Melinda Hsu Taylor’s series: like “Riverdale,” it owes a lot to “Twin Peaks,” and like any number of other shows currently airing, it also owes a lot to “Riverdale”; “Veronica Mars” also figures prominently in its DNA, as does “Gilmore Girls”; the list goes on. But it’s not enough to check a bunch of boxes of things people have liked elsewhere and call it a day. That way brings disaster. There’s got to be something else there. This series has some considerable flaws, and as you might guess, can be fairly derivative, but it’s got a great lead in Kennedy McCann.
McCann brings us a version of the girl detective who, unlike many of her predecessors, doesn’t even kind of have her stuff together. As brought to life by McCann, Taylor, creator and executive producer Noga Landau, and executive producers Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz (of “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl” fame), this is a Nancy who claims to have left her sleuthing days behind. It’s not that she’s seen the error of her ways, or decided to put away childish things in favor of some more adult, less entertaining hobby. This is a young woman whose life has been saturated with grief. After losing her mother in her final year of high school, Nancy’s grades and relationships cratered. Abandoning her plans for college and dreams for the future, she picked up an apron and an order pad and started working at a local diner, The Claw, managed by a tough-talking, grudge-holding former classmate named George (Leah Lewis, a standout in a mostly underwhelming cast). She keeps everyone, even her secret hookup Ned “Nick” Nickerson (Tunji Kasim) and her father (Scott Wolf, doing the “Riverdale” onetime-teen-heartthrob-plays-parent thing) at arm’s length, minimum.
When the wife of a nefarious local rich guy is murdered in the diner’s parking lot, Nancy, George, Nick, and co-workers Bess (Maddison Jaizani) and Ace (Alex Saxon) become prime suspects, and Nancy feels the old urge to sleuth begin to rise. But then she gets a little distracted by a ghost in a prom dress—one who won’t leave her the hell alone.
That’s the element of “Nancy Drew” that’s simultaneously the most entertaining and the most likely to send the show off the rails. In the two episodes provided for critics, Nancy gets drawn into two mysteries: that early murder, and the death of Dead Lucy, a former “Sea Queen” who wore her crown for only a few hours before she was found dead. Now she’s the stuff of local legend, and as Nancy breaks, enters, and makes lists with headers like MOTIVE and OPPORTUNITY, she keeps seeing a dead face behind her, refusing to be ignored, demanding her attention, and dare I say, haunting her every step. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. But in the chilly seaside town Nancy calls home, it just feels right, a spooky-but-not-too-spooky story that’s just ridiculous enough to make even the lackluster scares enjoyable.
Yet it also never stops feeling like a distraction from that first mystery, the one with real-life stakes for our heroine—and more importantly, it’s definitely a distraction from the mystery that McCann makes important, which is The Case of How She’s Going To Get Her Life Together. McCann doesn’t oversell anything here, particularly the tough stuff, which makes it easy to invest in Nancy as a person who is very good at hiding how much she’s struggling. She’s great at lying. She pretends at invulnerability. Most interestingly, McCann somehow makes Nancy’s desire to sleuth seem like a positive and a negative at once: it’s something fundamental to who she is as a person, something honest and good, but is also a compulsion, and an unhealthy one at that. That’s all in the writing which, while not always particularly sharp or fun, does right by its protagonist, but it’s McCann who brings that contradiction to life in thrilling fashion.
It’s fortunate that both McCann and the character are so engaging, because the one element of the show that should be an easy win somehow misses the mark. There’s “Who killed Laura Palmer?” on one hand, there’s “Who killed a resident of whatever town Jessica Fletcher happens to be visiting in this week’s episode” on the other, and plenty of questions in between. For a season-long mystery to work, you have to care about the people and the detective right away, ready to fear for their safety and dread that those who seem trustworthy will prove themselves otherwise. For a case-of-the-week to work, it’s got to be satisfying and clever—it’s the resolution, not the uncertainty, that satisfies. It seems likely that the creators of this “Nancy Drew” have chosen to go the former route, rather than the latter, and that’s fine, but the victim is a non-entity. No one grieves her, no one hates her, no one seems to know anything about her, and the same is true, at this stage anyway, of the ghost. It makes for a story that feels familiar but empty, writing out the formula without actually putting in any of the relevant data.
“Nancy Drew” doesn’t work, really—not as a mystery, not as a ghost story, not as a character drama or coming-of-age story. It’s not there yet, it’s really struggling, but you sense that it’s got the goods somewhere. If it can just put the pieces together, find the clues, find the focus, then maybe it can be all that we want it to be: an entertaining story about a timeless character, doing what she does best.
Two episodes screened for review.