Batwoman and Nancy Drew Get Their Gritty TV Reboots
Fall network premiere rollouts end with a weak burst of remakes.
- Batwoman. The CW. Sunday, October 6, 8 p.m.
- Kids Say the Darndest Things. Sunday, October 6, 8 p.m.
- Nancy Drew. Wednesday, October 9, 9 p.m.
That croaking sound you hear from your television set is the death rattle of the rollout of television's fall season, dragging itself to the finish line with some of the worst Nielsen numbers since the primordial TV days of shows about crime-busting postal inspectors.
In fact, the final bloc of TV premieres are remakes or rehashes or re-inflictions of shows from those ancient times, all rooted in the 1950s or even earlier. Worse yet, their histories are a lot more interesting than any of the shows.
The teenage-detective hero of The CW's Nancy Drew, for instance, since 1930 has been the star of something close to 200 novels, six TV shows (not all of which made it to air) and five movies. And that's not even counting three versions of Veronica Mars, who was essentially an underclass clone of Nancy.
That's an impressive record given all the opposition to Nancy over the years. Teachers hated her—when a girl in my fourth-grade classroom made the mistake of mentioning a Nancy novel, the instructor erupted into an unhinged tirade about how the books were trash and no decent parent would allow a kid to read one—and librarians generally refused to stock her.
This despite (or maybe it was because of?) the fact that Nancy was unquestionably the coolest girl around. She was much more interested in solving crimes than boys or clothes. She raced around town in a sporty little roadster, fearlessly barged into haunted houses and deserted warehouses and lairs of killer robots.
She sounded much more fun to hang out with than her dorky literary cousins, the Hardy Boys, and that was even before we knew she looked like Pamela Sue Martin.
Newcomer Kennedy McMahon, who plays the title role in The CW's new version of Nancy Drew, certainly passes the cuteness test. But her Nancy falls short in every other respect. Just as it did in its sullen Archie adaptation Riverdale, the network has squeezed all the light-heartedness and charm out of its characters in favor of morose despondency and leaden bitchery.
This Nancy is no longer a high-school kid but a kid embittered by the death of her mother, which messed up her SAT scores and left her as a greasy-spoon waitress. Even the curiosity that led to her detective agencies is extinguished. "I don't go searching in the dark anymore, not after the darkness found me," she declares in her endlessly self-important narration. She changes her mind only when she becomes a murder suspect herself.
Nancy's amiable lawyer dad Carson (Scott Wolf, The Night Shift) has turned into a predatory sleaze, and she hates him. Her boyfriend Ned Nickerson (Shakespearian actor Tunji Kasim) now calls himself "Nick" and has turned into an ex-con. She hates him. Her tomboy best friend George (Leah Lewis, Charmed) has unaccountably not turned into a lesbian but Nancy's irascible boss. Nancy hates her, and vice-versa. If the lesson of previous Nancy Drews was that girls have the capacity to be much more than mommies and wives, this time around it seems to be that they have the capacity for boundless bile and endless animus.
Batwoman, on the other hand, has an impressive capacity for irony, if you know the backstory. The Batwoman character was born in 1956 after the publication of a scathing attack on the comic-book industry called Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed, among other things, that Batman and Robin were ticking gay time bombs that would destroy American youth.
DC Comics quickly came up with a love interest for Batman who was neither male nor underage: Batwoman, a former circus performer whose purse was full of what looked like feminine appurtinences like lipstick and charm bracelets but were actually lethal Bat-style weapons. She lasted until 1964, when DC decided her guy was past his homosexual panic and unceremoniously killed her off.
The irony here is that The CW's revived Batwoman is a lesbian toughie named Kate Kane who got kicked out of a military academy after she was caught kissing her girlfriend. She's bitter about not just that, but also that her security-consultant father submarined her plans to join a fascist paramilitary unit that's been protecting Gotham since Batman disappeared for unexplained reasons three years ago.
(We'll pause for a moment while you try to unpack the politics of that last paragraph.)
The brooding Kate decides to stop by and see her simpatico cousin, Bruce Wayne. But he's disappeared (also three years ago, just like Batman, though nobody in Gotham City seems to have noticed the coincidental timing). While looking around his stately manor, though, Kate discovers this giant cave underneath it! Filled with Batman suits! And wow, is that lucky, because a saucy new supervillain named Alice (as in Wonderland) has just showed up to seize control of Gotham City.
There are a lot of cross-marriages among the families of these characters that would doubtless create a lot of intra-linear dramatic tensions if you could ever figure out who everybody is, but Batwoman's teeming writers' room (there are 13 writing credits in the first two episodes) is spectacularly inept at exposition. Or practically anything else; everything in Batwoman—the plots, the dialogue, the characterizations—is very comic-booky, in the worst sense of the term.
That's too bad for Ruby Rose (Orange Is the New Black), who plays Kane and deserves better. Unlike the affectations of everybody in Nancy Drew, the fractures in Kane's soul crackle with the authentic pain of personal betrayal. She puts on her Batwoman costume not so much because she wants to save anybody, but to prove to the city that it did her wrong. Alas, so did the executive producers.
If the revival of the hetero-norming Batwoman character as broadcast TV's first gay superhero protagonist seems odd, ABC's revival of Kids Say the Darndest Things is utterly inexplicable. The show goes all the way back to the days of radio, where it was a brief interlude on Art Linkletter's talk-variety show House Party. When Linkletter moved to TV in 1949, so did the kids, where they stayed until his retirement in 1967.
As a five-minute segment in which Linkletter questioned suburban 7-year-olds who seemed scarcely aware of where they were or why, Kids was often quite funny. (Linkletter: "What does your mommy do?" Kid: "She does a little housework, then sits around all day reading the racing form.") And when it wasn't, well, five minutes is mercifully brief.
ABC's version, though, is a full squirmy hour, with kids who've been studying YouTube since before they were weaned. Producer-host Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip) tries hard, but these children brim with a smarmy precocity that makes me long for a TV version of another candid-kiddie work, National Lampoon's old "Children's Letters To The Gestapo."