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Netflix's Dead Boy Detectives Is A Spinoff Stuck In Limbo

Like its ghostly protagonists, Netflix's "Dead Boy Detectives" is caught between two worlds—or rather, IPs. Initially conceived as a spinoff of then-HBO Max's cult DC anti-hero series "Doom Patrol" (in which the characters, all played by different actors than here, guested in a backdoor pilot of sorts), the show was sold to Netflix—presumably as a symptom of the streaming world's increasing contraction. Lucky for them, Netflix already has a "Sandman" adaptation on the books and considering the Dead Boy Detective Agency kicked off in those comics, it was a no-brainer to set this series in the same realm. The results are a clumsy, if occasionally charming, child of its two parent shows: eerie and contemplative like "Sandman," but full of the same crassness and irreverence that made "Doom Patrol" so endearing. 

The titular private eyes are a pair of English schoolboys, Edwin Paine (George Rexstrew) and Charles Rowland (Jayden Revri), who become ghosts after dying tragically at the same boarding school 70 years apart. Edwin, a closeted gay boy essentially hate-crimed into the underworld, died in 1916; Charles, a Thatcher-era British punk, shifted the mortal coil in 1990. Nonetheless, the pair found each other, forged a deep friendship, and decided to stay on this mortal plane to make something of their spectral existence. In their case, they start a detective agency in London—one centered on solving supernatural crimes. 

In the premiere episode, Charles and Edwin happen across a young psychic named Crystal Palace (Kassius Nelson), whom after holding at bay the demon ex-boyfriend possessing her, decides to join the team as their living liaison. Not long after that, though, showrunner Steve Yockey (alongside Beth Schwartz) plops the central trio in the sleepy seaside town of Port Townshend; there, Edwin is trapped in the town by an enchantment courtesy of libertine demigod Thomas the Cat King (Lukas Gage), who bids him stay in the town until he either counts every cat in town or, well, finds some other way to satisfy him. 

Thus, we have our structure for a nice, budget-conscious season of television, keeping them in a single small location as Charles, Edwin, and Crystal work to free Edwin from the curse, all while solving a new case of the week. On top of that, they must stave off both the forces of Hell, who want the Dead Boy Detectives back in the afterlife where they belong, and a vengeful witch named Esther (Jenn Lyon), who wants revenge on the boys for foiling her plans in the pilot.

If that feels overstuffed, that's because it kind of is: "Dead Boy Detectives" works best when it zeroes in on its central ensemble and the quirky, oddball ghost cases they must solve each week. One week, they'll free a quirky Japanese girl named Niko (Yuyu Kitamura) from a pair of shady sprites (naturally, Niko later joins the team as ditzy comic relief). The next, they'll try to help a pair of dead frat bros figure out which spurned college girl did them in. 

It's all very "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina," or, more accurately, "Lockwood & Co."—a recently-cancelled Netflix show with an eerily identical premise. Unfortunately, "Dead Boy Detectives" lacks the latter's charm and the former's star power. To be fair, the central pair are quite fun to watch: Rexstrew and Revri have lovely chemistry as prissy, mystical Hardy Boys, which develops in interesting ways as Edwin starts to reflect on the budding sexuality his youth and time period never allowed him to explore. Nelson serves the straight-woman role admirably, even though her individual subplots are nothing to write home about. Occasionally, the odd Gaimanesque detour shakes up the formula a bit -- like the various efforts of the Night Nurse (Ruth Connell, reprising her role from "Doom Patrol") to recapture the boys for Hell's Lost and Found Department, only to find herself trapped in a sea creature. 

But these intermittent charms aren't quite enough to water down its streaming-era doldrums. Many of "Dead Boy Detectives"' faults feel emblematic of Netflix's structural flaws across the service—muddy, dim cinematography, hour-long episodes that stretch episodes beyond the limits of sensible pacing, and the lackadaisical air of a show intended for "second screen" consumption. 

What's more, the tone feels a little too self-consciously droll, reading more as a poor imitation of Gaiman's signature surrealism than an extension of the real thing. Whether through a pair of catty sprites who razz on Niko episode after episode, or the endless series of secondary antagonists chasing after our charming ghost boys (either to capture or to snog, or both), "Dead Boy Detectives" chases the "Riverdale" crowd in a way that feels a bit too breathless.

Despite its faults, "Dead Boy Detectives" seems dead set on providing passable, spectral entertainment even for those unfamiliar with the series (both of them) on which it's based. It's just a shame it doesn't feel like it has an identity of its own. 

Whole season screened for review. Now on Netflix.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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