On its face, the premise of “Alex Rider,” a streaming show about a teenager who is recruited to be a spy, does not inspire much confidence for the prospective viewer.
One can just imagine a whiny teenager trying to balance finding a date for prom and finishing homework by day while sparring with supervillains and thwarting their world domination schemes by night. In between ever more ridiculous scenes, this boy would also struggle with his identity and weep bitter tears over a lost father figure. This was exactly what happened in the 2006 movie, which was a critical and financial flop.
Fortunately, the new Amazon Prime series from IMDB TV and Sony Pictures Entertainment — based on the hugely popular young adult series by Anthony Horowitz — has learned from these mistakes and makes the story of “Alex Rider” work. It dispenses with most of the adolescent and secret agent tropes and creates a compelling show that features a great plot, likable characters, and solid action and suspense. More importantly, the show takes itself and its audience seriously.
Like any spy thriller, the plot of “Alex Rider” is what holds everything together. Nevertheless, unlike most spy thrillers, which tend to veer into complex world-building and subplots, the show keeps it simple: Alex’s uncle, a secret agent, is mysteriously murdered, and this leads Alex, ably played by Otto Farrant, to participate in a secret mission to figure out what happened.
After the first few episodes show how Alex ends up agreeing to the mission, the rest of the season focuses on his mission. He goes undercover at Point Blanc, a school in the Alps that specializes in reforming the wayward children of billionaires.
Alex slowly learns the ways of the school while his team gradually uncovers the school’s connection to other illegal activity, precipitating intense action and plot twists in the final episodes. All of these scenes are faithfully executed, looking realistic, not cheap or overdone.
The simplicity of the plot, however, does lead to serious underdevelopment in the main character and his setting. Alex’s backstory, such as how his parents died and how he learned to be a spy, is occasionally hinted at in the dialogue, but almost none of it is clear. The viewer simply has to accept he’s a trained agent on a mission.
The agency he works for is equally undiscussed. Again, the viewer simply has to accept that these people who stare at their screens in a poorly lit industrial building are a special division of MI6 operatives coordinating missions and gathering intelligence.
Although these omissions detract from the show’s realism and prevent more emotional investment in the protagonist, the general restraint in development does help to keep the focus on the plot, and it prevents the characters from becoming an annoying distraction. Even Alex’s nerdy friend Tom Harris, played by Brenock O’Connor, satisfies as the comic relief and character foil and manages not to overwhelm a scene.
Thankfully, the less filled-in characters still retain their believability — a rarity in shows featuring adolescents — acting with the maturity appropriate to their age. For the most part, the teenagers are not wise beyond their years, nor are the adults impetuous morons in need of lectures from the youth they supposedly supervise.
At no point does the show degenerate into slapstick or parody. Each person does his part with a straight face, and the show is surprisingly serious the whole way through. There are a few angsty moments with Alex and Tom, but this is minimized. Although they occasionally seem a little obtuse or make dumb mistakes, adult characters are also mostly capable in their roles.
On a deeper level, “Alex Rider” has the uncommon virtue, particularly among youth entertainment, of not being preachy. Alex doesn’t have to learn to respect women more, nor do to tame his toxic masculinity (on the contrary). He is not a minority trying to overcome systemic prejudice, nor is he breaking stifling social conventions with his sexuality or political wokeness. In an unexpected move, the creators stayed faithful to their source material and kept him a teenage straight white male who shows unusual strength and courage.
That said, the cast includes a variety of different looks, and women play key roles in helping Alex succeed, particularly his handler Mrs. Jones, played by Vicky McClure, and classmate Kyra, played by Mayli Siu. Yet, rather than competing with Alex and taking him down a peg, these women complement him and play their parts competently. In general, both the men and women in the show shine in their proper element, without anyone being denigrated or overpowered to make a point.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the only real theme that seems to surface from the show is friendship, which is rare in a genre where the protagonist is mainly alone — both because no one understands him and so that he can keep his friends and family safe. While Alex’s friendship with Tom indeed puts the latter in danger, it also keeps Alex grounded. Seeing this play out is gratifying and refreshing, especially when such relationships are painfully absent among so many young men today.
Overall, one doesn’t have to be a teenager to enjoy “Alex Rider.” True, it may appeal primarily to a young audience, but adults will appreciate the good, clean fun that it offers. It avoids the common pitfalls of similar shows and movies, and, based on the developments of the final episode, it has the potential to continue delivering quality entertainment.