How Nancy Drew Has Reinvigorated the Dark Young Adult Drama

While Nancy Drew may share a common aesthetic with other contemporary young adult TV, it’s blazing its own narrative path.

Nancy Drew on The CW
Photo: The CW

This Nancy Drew article contains some spoilers for Season 1.

Our current television landscape is full to bursting with moody young adult dramas. From cynical high school narratives (Riverdale) and vengeful cheerleader stories (Dare Me) to tales of witches (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) and post-apocalyptic dystopias (Daybreak), virtually every network is pushing shows with similar themes and tropes. Negligent parents, murder, drugs, and even cults abound, as our youthful heroes try to navigate their early adulthood in a time and place that’s marked by darkness of increasingly bizarre varieties. 

So, in a world that’s crowded with Riverdale rip-offs, do we really need another gritty young adult drama centered in a small town with an absurdly high murder rate and an over-saturated color palette? Yes, if that show is Nancy Drew, the CW’s smart, sparkling small screen adaptation of the famous Carolyn Keene novels. While Nancy Drew may share a common aesthetic with many of these other similarly-themed shows, it’s busy blazing its own new path.

A gutsy take on a beloved classic heroine, Nancy Drew is a show that knows exactly what it wants to be, and trusts its audience to come along for the ride, no matter how weird, creepy or downright terrifying it gets. And if you slept on this gem of a mystery series while it was airing? Joke’s on you, folks. Because Nancy Drew is a breath of fresh air—a series that combines the normally staid tropes of a teen drama, a procedural mystery, and a horror movie to create both a show and a heroine that feels entirely new. 

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Nancy Drew was conceptualized as a female counterpart to The Hardy Boys, and she’s been solving mysteries in a variety of formats since the 1930s. (Let’s just not talk about that recent comic where she gets murdered in honor of her 90th anniversary. Ugh.) The CW version of her adventures doesn’t pretend that it’s got a lot in common with the original novels beyond a smart, plucky heroine and a whole lot of self-referential Easter eggs. 

Nevertheless, this show is the best on-screen adaptation of the famous girl detective to date, giving us a Nancy Drew that’s entertaining and deeply relatable in a way that makes sense for a modern audience. She’s brilliant, brave, and dedicated to finding the truth – even when that truth really hurts. 

But she’s hardly anyone’s role model. This is a Nancy with trust issues and an abrasive personality; she’s stubborn, condescending and emotionally closed off from almost everyone around her. Her life has collapsed in the wake of her mother’s death, leading her to skip applying for college in favor of a dead-end waitressing job at local eatery The Claw, lose all her friends, and distance herself from her well-meaning but extremely messy father. 

Nancy’s not a perfect detective either, for all of her obvious skills. For starters, she’s frequently wrong – and the show isn’t afraid to show her getting things incorrect or making false assumptions in her investigations. She’s often driven by her own emotions and biases and makes reckless choices in the heat of the moment. And that’s before we even get into the fact that everything she’s ever known about her life turns out to be a lie. 

It takes a certain amount of guts to make a show called Nancy Drew and decide to make the big twist of its first season the revelation that our lead heroine isn’t actually Nancy Drew at all. That the true identity of Nancy herself turns out to be one of the central mysteries of the season is the sort of story, on paper, that might make the casual viewer snort in disbelief. But within the world of this show, with its secrets and ghostly mysteries, the truth of Nancy’s parentage just feels like another layer of tragedy in a town that attracts more than its fair share. 

Part of the reason this all works is the absolutely terrific performance from lead actress Kennedy McMann.Playing Nancy as whip smart, vulnerable, and utterly dedicated to the truth, McMann fully inhabits the girl detective from her very first scene. That Nancy ultimately has to turn her gaze inward, and solve the mystery of her own identity, somehow feels like a necessary step forward for this character. So much of this Nancy’s story has been about the things she’s lost – her mother, the future she planned on, the bedrock of her relationship with her dad, even the sort of boyfriend she begins the series with – that there’s something poetic in the idea that she has to discover her true self before she can move forward and embrace the person she’s meant to become. 

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That sense of discovery, that desire to know what’s real and what isn’t, is one of things that powers Nancy Drew’s other truly unexpected plot twist: The revelation that ghosts not only exist, but regularly haunt the streets and homes of a small town in Maine. Unlike the Keene novels, which feature plenty of things that go bump in the night but that ultimately have real-life explanations (a neighbor’s cat, an unlatched window), the show goes all in on the supernatural from its very first installment. 

Horseshoe Bay – with its bizarre seasonal rituals and dark folklore – is as much a character in Nancy Drew as any of the people in the story. A formative force in the lives of all its residents, it doesn’t seem that weird that some of them might struggle to move on after those lives have ended. The interconnectedness of its citizens, their families, and the history between them all provides a texture that’s a bit lacking in other CW teen haunts. (Looking at you Riverdale.) Here, the ghosts and supernatural beings are part of the very ground our characters walk on—literally, in some cases. 

As a result, the mysteries and monsters of this show aren’t present only to provide jump scares and creepy effects. (Though they do plenty of that.) Nancy Drew uses its horror framework to tell distinctly different stories than many of its teen television compatriots, even as it uses its supernatural plot elements to further illustrate the experiences of its characters, both living and not so much. 

Dead Lucy, a sea queen who met a grisly fate on the town bluffs, is a folk legend in Horseshoe Bay. But her real story is one of tragedy and loneliness, and she haunts Nancy not because she’s a monster, but because she’s a mother. George Fan’s mother, Victoria, is a clairvoyant, a gift which has not only given her the ability to speak to the dead, but a destructive drinking problem in an attempt to escape their voices. A group trip to the spirit realm to bring Ace back from a coma manages to shed light on his backstory and Nancy’s own family dynamics. And the vengeful sea spirit known as the Agleaca that’s currently haunting the Drew Crew has already proven to have all too human roots. 

This Nancy Drew isn’t the detective story you remember from childhood. And though this adaptation isn’t a perfect series – it struggles through its fair share of freshmen growing pains, and the supporting cast takes half a dozen episodes to find its feet – when it’s firing on all cylinders, there’s nothing else on TV quite like it. It’s more than worth your time. Just maybe watch it with the lights on the first time through.