“There are no secrets like small-town secrets.” This curious theme gets explored and scrutinized in “The Hardy Boys,” a TV adaptation of the classic pre-teen mystery novels that premiered this past weekend on Hulu.
Over 13 episodes, brothers Frank and Joe Hardy are often in peril, sometimes breaking rules, and always seeking truth and justice.
Generations of grade-school readers have grown up with the sleuthing brothers, who have appeared in more than 300 fiction books dating back to 1927, when such so-called “dime novels” were all the rage. Collaborating with a diverse group of friends, Frank and Joe seem to have eagle-eye detection as they seek out how disparate facts and strange discoveries are linked. The characters are defined by their curiosity, sincerity, and self-sacrifice.
Fans have had concerns that their return to the small screen would abandon that essence — for good reason. Last year, The CW’s glossy “Nancy Drew” reboot had teen characters steal away to engage in sexual liaisons, not to mention a high body count. Since 2017, hit show “Riverdale” changed a lot about the gang first introduced in Archie Comics, adding a heavy dose of gory violence and a teacher’s intimate involvement with high school students.
Mercifully, “The Hardy Boys” reboot — shot in Canada and produced by family entertainment company Nelvana — sticks to mystery-solving sans explicit content. In fact, the plot, characters, and tone are a clever amalgamation of their various past incarnations.
For instance, while early novels introduce the Hardys at ages 17 and 18, the 1950s TV version (executive-produced by Walt Disney himself) changed them to 12 and 13-year-olds. Splitting the difference, this TV-PG reboot features cerebral Frank at age 16 and Joe as an impulsive 12-year-old. Frank navigates an innocent-enough high-school love triangle, while his younger brother focuses attention solely on the case at hand — and what a case it is, playing out over ten hours of screen time.
Brothers On the Beat
The serialized season one begins with the Hardys experiencing a devastating family loss. In ways unexplained, it seems linked to a stone object fished out of a Maine harbor that now several mysterious figures are trying to obtain.
The boys’ police detective father Fenton heads overseas to investigate in what appears to be a European locale (in keeping with the tween’s-eye-view narrative, a specific nation is not identified). Meanwhile, the Hardy brothers are sent to live with a relative in Bridgeport, Maine. Considering a half-dozen key figures in the murder investigation, along with dozens of clues, show up during the brothers’ ad-hoc fact-finding, it’s apparently where dad should’ve stayed.
Set in the 1980s, this reboot series often seems a decade or three older due to visual cues in the mid-century town. One day after first strolling down what looks like Main Street, U.S.A., Frank takes a summer job at a throwback soda shop, hat and all. The brothers ride bikes as they head to the library, police station, local hotel, and the like to sniff out clues — aesthetics similar to the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” although with less horror and shock value.
A group of peers rather quickly glom onto the Hardy boys’ escapades. Almost-graduated Chet, discerning Callie, and nerdy Phil are near-constant companions for Frank, while Joe finds a friend in tomboyish Biff. The latter character has been gender-swapped from the books, as she explains: “The first day of kindergarten, I couldn’t say my name right and said ‘Elizabiff’ — it just stuck.”
By episode three, supernatural elements are introduced into the grounded detective plot. A brief scene of tarot card reading plays on dark-but-nonspecific spirituality tropes seen in Disney’s acclaimed “Holes” family film and some past “Hardy Boys” novels. The MacGuffin at the center of season one presents bigger questions. Is it alien? The remnants of a long-lost civilization?
One scene in “The Hardy Boys” has perhaps the most succinct definition ever given on-screen for what a MacGuffin is. Pressed by an adult ally about what powers the ancient rock has, Joe answers: “How am I supposed to know? All I know is that everyone wants it.”
More Than Just the Facts
“The Hardy Boys” reboot series depicts two brothers in tireless pursuit of truth. Sure, they have some fun along the way. Yet their on-the-ground research is based not only on high-IQ book smarts but also (as reviews have noticed) a high EQ (emotional quotient). Listening to people and communicating well are some of their keys to successfully solving the case.
The series stretches a little long at times, one of its few shortcomings. In past incarnations, the Hardy boys would uncover villainous culprits in a 50-minute episode every week, rather than unpacking one winding behemoth of a whodunit over 10 hours. If the series is renewed, viewers should hope producers will consider five or six-episode story arcs for each mystery.
Finally, as with any series where detectives investigate murder and conspiracy, “The Hardy Boys” gets grim at times. Parents may want to preview an episode before letting young kids tag along with Frank and Joe. For their pre-teens and older, most will find this throwback TV series full of intrigue and compelling drama.
Rated TV-PG for violence and peril, “The Hardy Boys” season one is now streaming on Hulu.