Joining fellow detective Nancy Drew and Riverdale’s young residents, the Hardy Boys are the latest characters to get a darker, edgy reboot in the 21st century. (Who’s next: The Bobbsey Twins? Encyclopedia Brown? Amelia Bedelia?) In Hulu’s The Hardy Boys, 16-year-old Frank (Rohan Campbell) and 12-year-old Joe (Alexander Elliot) Hardy attempt to overcome a family tragedy during a summer in small-town Bridgeport, where, unsurprisingly, they stumble across a major mystery.
Unlike Franklin W. Dixon’s large volume of books or the 1970s’ The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, these Hardy Boys more closely emulate their contemporaries, bypassing a case-of-the-week setup for an engrossing, all-encompassing puzzle. While the boys are stuck at their Aunt Trudy’s (Bea Santos) house for the summer, their detective dad, Fenton (James Tupper), takes off on a mysterious missing-person case. Frank and Joe find themselves stumped by one puzzling clue after another related to an uncovered artifact with apparently dangerous powers. While The CW’s Nancy Drew has leaned into supernatural creepiness, and Netflix’s Stranger Things has explored straight-up horror, The Hardy Boys hosts a vague air of mysticism, guided by a series of ciphers and puzzles, which are some of the series’ most compelling features (and which it, frankly, could have used more of). In the absence of their father, the brothers turn to his detecting manual—and Joe fortunately possesses the valuable skill of lock-picking—to delve deeper into the mystery with their new gang of Bridgeport friends. Turns out the artifact is at the heart of a secret Freemason-like society, and the Hardys find that even a beloved family member may somehow be involved.
The Hardy Boys is clearly situated in the ’80s, with some infectious hits from Yaz and New Order on the soundtrack; it turns out that Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” is the perfect score for a tough school test, as is Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” for an ambitious group project. With its large collection of middle school and high school kids investigating bizarre goings-on in a small town, the series is bound to raise Stranger Things comparisons (Cristian Perri’s Phil pretty much fills the Dustin role). But where Stranger Things’ version of the ’80s is all bright pastels and neon, in The Hardy Boys the decade is rendered in a subdued, nostalgic sepia tone.
Newcomer Alexander Elliott is an absolute find as Joe, with an innate acting ability that belies his youth, equally capable at displaying grief and delivering snarky deadpan wisecracks. Rohan Campbell’s Frank unfortunately is more of a blank slate in comparison. Joe likes to subvert expectations, telling their dad that he’ll take care of his older brother, frequently bringing Frank down to earth (“She’s hiding something, I just need to find out what her game is.” “Evil, Frank. She’s hiding evil.”). The rogue’s gallery of villains is more cartoon-like than frightening, like a seven-foot-tall dead-faced assassin who could give Boris Karloff a run for his money, or a charismatic D.B. Cooper-like thief (Atticus Mitchell as J.B. Cox) who has an unexpected and amusing camaraderie with Joe.
The series’ easy charm and low-stakes, mostly bloodless mystery helps it hurdle some questionable plot decisions (maybe children shouldn’t go after violent criminals on their own? Why are the two brothers in the same school? Why send Fenton away only for him to show up intermittently throughout the season?). But just when it seems like the secretive town’s mystery may not be enough to stretch across 13 episodes, the series wisely adds strange teen interloper Stacy (Rachel Drance), who not only fuels some teen soap opera fire but also adds intrigue.
For fans of the original book series, The Hardy Boys contains some fun references: Keana Lyn’s Callie Shaw is dating Adam Swain’s Chet at the start of the series, but devotees know that she’s destined for Frank. The Hardys’ close chum Biff Hooper changes from a six-foot-tall athlete to a precocious female classmate of Joe’s. The Hardy family moved to Bridgeport from Dixon City, and Stacy hails from Franklin, both references to the books’ writer. Best of all, the series manages to maintain the draw of the Hardy Boys’ legacy, especially when just the two brothers are on the case (“Is this the last time we’re coming to a creepy warehouse?” “Probably not.”). It could use some more twists and turns, and maybe a few additional wisecracks; nevertheless, in this new series, The Hardy Boys’ magnetic appeal is intact.