The Hardy Boys (2020)

5 out of 5

Developed by: Steve Cochrane, Jason Stone

covers season 1

I’d say something trite like “they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” except I’m not sure they’ve ever made them quite like this. Now, true, that’s likely a statement that’s overselling the 2020 TV edition of The Hardy Boys, which isn’t going to necessarily scramble brains with masterful mystery plotting and cause jaws to drop with fantastic acting and twisty turns – the plot is great and the actors are amazing, but this isn’t designed as a watercooler or awards showpiece, and you’ll recognize story and character archetypes left and right – but at the same time, I don’t offer the statement as hyperbole: seeing so many successful elements combined across each and every episode of a show such that no character is unworth our time, and no episode should / can be skipped is a rarity. Where it extends to being something unseen before is in how all of that skill in front of and behind the camera is applied to something so normal – a classic adventure tale. The “don’t make ’em like this…” tag is because this is the kind of thing we got in 80s tales like Goonies or Indiana Jones, but that I don’t feel has every been quite so perfectly ported to TV without, usually, the requisite bloat of filler that requires. Instead, developers Steve Cochrane and Jason Stone (alongside a quality handful of directors and writers) took that feeling of those classics and their ilk, and that sensation they leave you with – of wanting to go on the ride all over again – and figured out how to evolve and flesh that out properly for a 13-episode show. If you’ve connected that that means that you’re getting 13 hour-long repeats of that grand ol’ feeling, you are quite correct, with the added bonus of the tone being modernized such that it feels progressive and self-aware, even while being set in a non-kitschy, non-Strangers-Things-nostalgiad version of the 80s.

Brothers Frank and Joe Hardy (Rohan Campbell playing the elder Frank, Alexander Elliot the younger, Joe) are living a pretty picturesque life with their ace cop Dad, Fenton (James Tupper) and their reporter mother, Laura (Janet Porter). Everything is ideal but kept believably so by the relatable performances from all of the actors; still, our TV-danger hackles are raised when, on the night of an important baseball game for Frank, mother dashes off with an “I’ll be right back,” after receiving an ominous phone call… The Hardy boys are delivered the news of their mother’s death in a car crash during that game.

Soon after, the boys and their father are moving back to mom and dad’s old hometown of Bridgeport, so that the boys can stay with their father’s sister, Aunt Trudy (Bea Santos), while Fenton himself pursues some leads suggestive of his wife’s death as not having been the accident it was reported as. It’s intended to be a short stayover, but Fenton goes incommunicado in his trek, and the boys settle in to life in town while they wait for his return, gathering a small cache of friends (Callie, played by Keana Lyn; Biff, played by Riley O’Donnell) and learning of the weird relationship their affluent grandmother, Gloria (Linda Thorson), has with the town. When the two glom onto peculiarities that seem tied in to the same business their father is investigating – thieves (Atticus Mitchell); assassins (Stephen R. Hart); crooked cops; mysterious idols; secret societies – they start doing detectiving of their own, employing tricks learned from dad, their own wits, and the help of their newly acquired friends… and suffering the disdaining tsk tsk of their Aunt whenever caught.

The sign of good casting and good writing is when it’s fun to spend time with the characters, even when nothing is going on. And while there’s plenty going on in Hardy Boys, there are moments where we’re just reveling in casual conversation… and it’s great. Yes, everything has an idealized sheen to it, but there’s still a lot of room left for real emotions, and an appreciated tendency to not overspeak when we can all understand what some silences are communicating. And the relationships, in general, sing. The brothers come across as brothers; the parents as parents; but where most TV (and movies…) relies on forced drama via withholding secrets and jealous bickering, we can follow the logic and emotion behind every interaction. This same mentality of restraint and relative realism perpetuates to the show’s production design, which has all the recognizable timeliness of rotary phones and arcade cabinets and milkshakes, but isn’t reliant on these things for audience appreciation; the show just happens to take place at a certain time (although the convenience of no cell phones certainly helps with the mystery…). The idealization also doesn’t affect the stakes: there are consequences to actions, and people get hurt, and people die, and there’s a legitimate weightiness to happenstances throughout, which is what makes each episode feel worth our time.

There’s been a lot of great television over the years, and subsequent shows have learned what to take and what to tweak, but that hasn’t prevented a lot of old habits from getting in the way of runs that are great from start to finish. The Hardy Boys takes from the past – an old school adventure vibe, fitting for an adaptation of old school adventure books – but uses those lessons-learned to perfect a certain formula instead of trying to flash it up to be something it’s not. In so doing, though, it emerges as this fresh, modern take on a classic feeling… but we’re still cursed with wanting more as soon as it’s over.