‘Nancy Drew’ is alright, but it’s not Nancy Drew

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - 4:38pm

'Nancy Drew'

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The CW

The CW’s new teen mystery series “Nancy Drew” is far more CW than it is Nancy Drew. Despite the similar character names and occasional cheeky references to the original book series’s titles, there is not much carrying the iconic girl detective’s legacy in this gritty reboot.

The series premiere of “Nancy Drew” opens on the titular sleuth’s hometown legend of a beauty queen who committed suicide the night she won her title. Nancy wins the same crown years later and spots the girl’s ghost in a cemetery, and the story transitions into Nancy’s abandonment of her teenage mystery solving after the death of her mother.

Still living at home a year after graduating high school, Nancy spends her time waiting tables at a local diner with George, her manager and former classmate, and Bess, a city girl summering in the beach town. She also is revealed to be casually hooking up with the show’s version of book character Ned Nickerson, who now goes by “Nick” and is a mechanic with a dark secret. After these four and the diner’s dishwasher stumble upon the body of a rich socialite from out of town, they become the prime suspects in her murder investigation.

As the group of less-than-friends works to clear their names to the police, Nancy finds herself reluctantly reentering the amateur detective game and uncovering secrets about the victim, the other suspects and even her own family members. Mounting evidence reveals that the ghost of the tragic beauty queen may be seeking revenge on the town and ends the episode looming over Nancy as she kneels over the recovered dress the girl wore when she died.

“Nancy Drew” itself is not a bad show. In fact, it has plot twists and character reveals fellow CW show “Riverdale” wishes it could pull off. The mystery is compelling, the setting is spooky and the characters are more complex than expected. Where the show falters, however, is in its strange relationship to the rest of the Nancy Drew franchise.

Throughout the premiere, the show makes it exceedingly clear this isn’t your grandmother’s Nancy Drew. The title character maintains almost none of her iconic traits of optimism and friendly resourcefulness and substitute it with aloofness and intense arrogance to prove Nancy’s struggle with grief has warped her personality. While the original book series’ happy disposition may seem out of place in modern television, the overt attempts (particularly the gratuitous sex scenes) to make the show edgy are ridiculous and almost laughable.

Again, on its own, the show could work. It lays a foundation for the kind of drama and intrigue that thrives on the CW network and embraces the fun of a local urban legend as a backdrop. However, by forcing the Nancy Drew label onto a show that desperately tries to shirk all it represents, it feels like the writers are struggling to strike a balance between old and new.

“Nancy Drew” really, really doesn’t want to be “Nancy Drew.” So why does it bother? With the success of “Riverdale” and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” it’s easy to assume these shows work because they are updated versions of popular classics. By embracing more adult themes for shows aimed at teenagers, “Nancy Drew” assumes it can gain a following through overlaying salacious material on a wholesome series. Unfortunately, this combination misses the mark and suffers because of it.

If “Nancy Drew” wants to justify its attachment to its source material, the solution lies in returning to what made the books so timeless: focusing on the thrill of a mystery, rather than the complexities of the characters. Sure, the Depression-era Nancy Drew may not be memorable on her own, but the escapism of her stories captivated audiences for a reason. “Nancy Drew” could do the same; it just has to focus on being fun, not inexplicably steamy and comically ominous.