Format: Web Series
Platform: Apple TV+
Astonishingly astute and observant, detective and mystery stories for children have always enabled their readers to immerse themselves into a world where the intrigue of the crime, but also the accessibility of uncovering the truth is most resonant to them. There are, of course, great examples in literature like the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Famous Five, Secret Seven and the Mystery series. But there’s also the signature tale of Harriet the Spy (also based on a book) in a movie which smartly shows off a precocious young protagonist in a way where we buy her interest in wanting to be a spy while also knowing that there’s a lesson or two in store for her, even as she faces real peril. It’s knowing that the story can be effectively told for its young adult audience that makes Home Before Dark a little confusing. The seriousness of a CW show for a Nickelodeon audience, or vice versa?
While initially supposed to premiere with three episodes, Apple TV+ dropped the whole first season of 10 episodes today, and it’s already been renewed for a second. So with some trepidation, I say there’s some potential there. All thanks to ‘The Florida Project’ star Brooklynn Prince, who plays real-life protagonist Hilde Lysiak. The real 9-year old Hilde is already a viral sensation due to a self-published newspaper which uncovered the news of a local murder a few years ago. Over time, she has been given the opportunity to do stories of national and international interest and also has a book deal to her name. For dramatisation, Prince’s Hilde is like a sleuth with a photographic memory. Her inspiration to become a reporter is from her father, but that serves only as a basis for the story. Soon after the family moves into their new home in a small town, Hilde takes it upon herself to uncover the truth behind a ‘murder,’ while also getting into trouble with anything she reports.
Apple TV+ has a repertoire of uneven but interesting shows and movies. Created by Dana Fox and Dara Resnik, Home Before Dark has the vibe of The Goonies meets Veronica Mars, with the protagonist serving as the lead rebel who can’t help but nose her way into the happenings in the city. Hilde’s father is seemingly connected to the murder that gets the story started and this is enough of a motive for Hilde to pursue it so passionately. Hilde loves her father and some of the show’s better moments come from the fact that the two connect on their mutual love for investigative journalism rather than a simple parent-child relationship. The advice that Hilde gets from her father, including not reading the comments on her posts, is something that serves as a running theme through the season. It is all sweet and well-intentioned, but the show has obviously abandoned any sense of believability when it has centred itself on such a young protagonist whose precociousness can’t be taken seriously beyond a point. So when both parents are forced to be cautious about her actions, we feel it is less from the point of concern and more because they are written to do so. Home Before Dark is trudging on a thin line where it is a bit unsure of the tone it takes. Hilde, with her two comic-relief sidekicks, is solving crimes as a self-proclaimed reporter. But her father is dealing with demons of his past, her mother is dealing with discord. Within the same episode, we oscillate between dark adult drama and young adult adventure, and this is not always a seamless transition.
TV kids aren’t necessarily the most palatable of characters. These days, however, they are increasingly written as bright and appealing individuals with a very realistic approach. It is testament to Brooklynn Prince’s natural talent that the absurdity at how her character is taken so seriously is also so easy, not to mention that she doesn’t always come across as an annoying know-it-all. She’s nine. Yet, she waltzes into a police station asking to see a case file. She spouts feminist (albeit warranted) ideals when defending her work. Brooklynn’s dramatic and comedic chops are noteworthy but the material often lets her down in the way it diminishes her passion by not picking up on the essence of her character. She has hacky lines which scream child prodigy, but this doesn’t give us any insight into her. Her performance, though, extracts some heartfelt moments between her and Jim Sturgess as her father. Once again, the show’s most likeable parts are watching the two together. Meanwhile, some supporting characters, like sister Izzy are done a disservice by getting boring subplots which do little to take the story further.
In shows like Veronica Mars or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for all their implausibility, the drama stemmed from the fact that the girls often found themselves in the middle of some real peril. They were smart and spirited but didn’t always have the answers. Aided by some friends and mentors, they were not only pulled out of real danger but also learned that it’s not always possible to do it alone. Had Home Before Dark taken this approach with Hilde’s story, it would be a breezier watch. Hilde is involved with some truly off-putting cases, which seem to suggest that the truth is a lot grimmer than we anticipate. And while it's a decent mystery overall, we are aware that the way things have been unravelling so easily for her, she’s going to come out of all of this unscathed. She writes one solid piece and soon enough, her newspaper is indispensable to the townsfolk. If you’re watching this show as an adult, the incredulity will annoy you. If you’re watching it with your kid, they might be visibly uncomfortable with the adult themes and language, even if they find the premise relatable.
What could have been a rather schmaltzy after-school special, I find it admirable that Home Before Dark is a smart and meaningful show if it’s directed to kids. Hilde is a great role model. She is passionate and determined. She knows that she loves journalism and she’s good at it. Bullying and misogyny is a theme that is explored in the series, where Hilde’s cause is constantly diminished. But the tone in which other characters interact with her is not condescending. When it is, the show is quick to slap that notion on its face. Hilde has been brought up with idealism and confidence that she regularly channels to get through her day. All said and done, the show does well in giving its protagonist dignity as an individual who should be taken seriously. This is evident in the way her dialogues are written, and how the camera is always positioned at her height.
Music and Other Departments:
Technically, Home Before Dark gets ample opportunity to explore Hilde as a high concept. There are a series of flashbacks where characters are allowed to observe their past. There is stop-motion animation to bring to life Hilde’s notes. Those notes are shown in the form of a neat vision-board done in the style of a procedural. Hilde’s photographic memory is explored in animation and cuts and highlights. It’s a well-crafted style that helps to breathe some life in the somewhat dull part of the story when we aren’t talking about crime.
Did I Enjoy It?
In a way. Home Before Dark does little to serve the binge-watch generation but since I did binge watch it, I was mildly intrigued by the mystery. Unfortunately, I had to settle with figuring it all out in season 2. Still, it’s a mixed bag show so we have to wait a while to see if it improves.
Do I Recommend It?
If you’re looking for a way to pass time with your kids, this might actually be a great family watch. Hilde and her friends make for cute companions for your kid’s mind even if it is all a bit implausible and convenient for you. If you’re looking for a great mystery or YA noir, skip it.
Rating: 2.5 /5