4 out of 5
Created by: Tracey Thomson
covers season 1
While certainly baiting for hooked viewers with cliffhanger-y mystery boxes, Secrets of Sulphur Springs makes good on its various puzzles and spookiness by actually playing it straight – once you’ve learned about something, the show sticks with it – by playing it straightforward – not trailing out questions for too long – and, as a keystone to this, making the lead characters interesting and believable, a tough sell in a kid-led, kid-geared show. Perhaps fittingly, then, it’s often the adults who get the short-shrift in the scripting – Griffin’s (Preston Oliver) parents, Sarah and Ben (Kelly Frye, Josh Braaten), and Harper’s (Kyliegh Curran) mom, Jess (Diandra Lyle) are the ones who come across as rather cookie cutter and behaving in broad, parent generalisms; though once we’re allowed more fully into the story, they get to come around as fuller characters as well.
The “secrets” of Sulphur Springs focus around the Hotel Tremont, which has been purchased by Griffin’s dad in one of those let’s-move-and-put-all-our-finances-into-this fix ‘er up scenarios, and which is purportedly haunted by a girl named Savannah, who’d disappeared when Ben was a kid and attending a camp near the hotel. With cold spots and chairs that rock on their own, we’re expecting the show to likely go down rabbit holes of exploring the hotel’s “ghosts” – surely the kids will see them; parents will disbelieve – but things thankfully take a delightful turn when Griffin and new friend Harper explore the building’s basement, and find a fallout shelter that transports them… to the same location, albeit thirty years in the past, which just so happens to be when Savannah disappeared.
This is fun, but it becomes downright complex – belying another key to the show, in dealing with some heavier dramatic points without cheapening them, and thus respecting its audience – when Griffin and Harper, in wanting to solve the Savannah mystery, discover that their parents knew one another way back when, and were perhaps more mixed up in things than they’d care to admit. Back in the present day – this is a two-way time travel device, thankfully – this new knowledge is what allows the parents to step out of their derivative shells a bit, as our lead kids poke and prod through conversation to learn more about what’s going on, or what went on. Meanwhile, Griffin’s younger brother and sister (Landon Gordon, Madeleine McGraw) fulfill the show-that-could’ve-been with some appreciated self awareness, being sort of comedy relief as they continue to investigate signs of hauntings in the hotel.
The story balances explanations with exploration well – solve the mystery, but enjoy the time travel – and spares us excessive fish-out-of-water gags, with the kids bopping around in the past. And though it’s very brief, the episodes do touch on disparities in how classes / races were treated differently in the different eras; it’s short enough that I suppose you could brush it off as just covering the bases to say they did, but it’s not treated like a PSA – it’s engrained rather naturally into the story, and again shows more maturity in the writing than one might associate with most shows for a Disney+ youth demographic, putting some concepts out there that don’t have clear answers. That said, the technicalities of the time travel are super glossed over, and the geography of the show’s sets doesn’t always feel like it connects. I’m not asking for hard sci-fi or a walkthrough of the hotel, but it does feel like we’re zipping between locations sometimes, and the lack of “how” regarding the mechanism is notable because it’s, like, half-addressed, and then half-ignored – there are some things that have rules, and then there are apparently some things that don’t.
The show very much scored with its lead actors: Preston juggles degrees of dorkiness with self-confidence very well, and is very likeable, and Kyliegh portrays a wide range of thoughtfulness and emotions through her expressions alone. Their interplay feels natural, and we like them as friends, or as a potential couple, however the show plays with it. Even the two youngsters are well cast for their subplotty hijinx, with good camera awareness and timing for what they’re called on, and are cute without being cloying.
Every now and then a kids’ series can nail this balance of being written smartly enough for all ages, and also using the age of its leads to allow for a bit more joy and wonder than a similar plot with adults might engender. And there are more secrets to come, hopefully; yes, as a spoiler, the initial mystery is solved – which is a good thing; no need to drag it out – but the season ends with some good intrigue for how to continue on.