‘Dead Boy Detectives’ review: Hardy Boys for the supernatural realm

A pair of teenage ghosts solve mysteries for their supernatural clientele in “Dead Boy Detectives” on Netflix, an eight-episode season that sits squarely in the YA genre. Picture something like “The Hardy Boys,” but British. And dead.

Edwin (George Rexstrew) died at his boarding school in 1916 and he is bookish and sensitive. Charles (Jayden Revri) died at the same boarding school in 1987 and he has a bolder streak and a dangly cross for an earring. The actors bear a physical resemblance that goes unremarked upon — thin and lanky, with dark hair and pointy features — but the characters also have shapeshifting powers that allow them to change their appearance and be visible to the living (a fun concept too often treated as a throwaway joke rather than a source of real humor or complexity).

Early on, they are hired by a ghost who tells them: “I would like you to help my friend Crystal. She’s a psychic, you see. A medium. So she can see me even though I’m a ghost. But lately, something has been odd.”

Crystal (Kassius Nelson) is a teenager as well, an American who is possessed by a demon, and after they rid her of that unwelcome psychic squatter, she joins their operation. For reasons too convoluted to explain, the three make their way to the Pacific Northwest, where they meet yet another person in need, named Niko (Yuyu Kitamura), who also joins their little gang of investigators. So it’s two dead boy detectives and two living girls working together on otherworldly whodunits, while also battling multiple nemeses including a witch, the aforementioned demon, and an officious administrative type, called the Night Nurse, who works in the afterlife and realizes Edwin and Charles have been dodging their fates.

The show was originally planned as a spinoff of “Doom Patrol” on Max — Edwin and Charles are characters created by Neil Gaiman for DC — but at some point, it moved to Netflix and here we are. It makes a certain amount of sense, joining the streamer’s YA catalog, which includes “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and “Wednesday.” Gaiman’s maximalist style (which has been all over TV these past few years, from “American Gods” to “Good Omens”) isn’t to my taste, but he has an appreciation for jokey puckishness that I appreciate. In the hands of showrunners Steve Yockey and Beth Schwartz, that tends to manifest as forced banter and lines like “Hell was terrible, we get it!” Edwin and Charles are given real complexity as the episodes progress. They are the title characters, after all — that makes sense. Even so, it’s conspicuous that Crystal and Niko are rendered as little more than manic pixie dream girls.

In theory, the series follows a case-of-the-week format, but the mysteries are more like half a mystery with half a solution because the scripts spend too much time servicing ongoing storylines. (“The Good Wife” remains the gold standard of juggling one-off narratives with more serialized plots.) Episode 5 finds the best balance, when they’re tasked with figuring out who murdered a couple of obnoxious high school jocks; the case feels grounded in teen-centric dilemmas and emotions and it’s not gummed up by supernatural gobbledygook.

This is a show that would benefit from allowing its characters to just hang out every so often, but the storytelling is frequently nervous-seeming and frantic, as if guided by a fear that audiences will be bored by anything that isn’t strange or outrageous. Why isn’t this more fun? I kept wondering. The main foursome is likable enough screen company, but they are hamstrung by weak writing. It’s the show’s more seasoned supporting players, including Jenn Lyon’s vampy witch and Ruth Connell’s taskmaster Night Nurse, who bring a tonal confidence that’s otherwise missing and carve out room for themselves to really play, giving “Dead Boy Detectives” the snap and crackle it so desperately needs.



2 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-MA

How to watch: Netflix