How ‘Home Before Dark’ and ‘Nancy Drew’ Revitalize the Young Girl Sleuth

Will Thorne

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In the first episode of “Home Before Dark,” the new Apple TV Plus mystery drama, Brooklynn Prince’s Hilde Lisko is dismissed as a “sweethearted” little girl whose journalistic aspirations are closer to a tea party with her imaginary friends than a serious vocation.

But anyone who knows the real Hilde’s story and watches Prince’s powerhouse performance, will soon realize that she is an investigative journalist with an unerring drive to uncover and report the truth, a trait which showrunner Dana Fox points out is all too important today.

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“When we were talking to Apple, we were careful to talk about tone constantly, because we wanted it to feel a little Amblin-y, a little throwback, but through this modern day lens. We live in a world that tries to tell us that truth can’t be known, that is attacking journalists, that is attacking the first amendment. We’re lucky to have Hilde as our North Star. No matter what’s going on in the world she says, ‘The truth matters, let’s go find it,'” Fox says.

“Home Before Dark” is one of several shows this TV season that are reframing the young female sleuth for today’s audience and today’s political environment. Kristen Bell returned for one more season as an adult, even messier version of the iconic “Veronica Mars” last year, while the CW is currently airing Noga Landau and Melinda Hsu Taylor’s take on “Nancy Drew,” which is heavily influenced by the #MeToo era and represents a stark departure from the rosy-cheeked Nancys of decades past.

Perhaps one of the reasons this mystery niche is flourishing, according to Fox, is its ability to tap into complex family dynamics and feelings of being dismissed to which many women, regardless of their age, can relate.

“I’m at a moment in my life where I remember being the little girl that was yelled at, and I also am the parent that gets frustrated and can do the yelling,” Fox says.

Near the beginning of “Home Before Dark,” Hilde’s father Matt (played by Jim Sturgess) loses his job as a journalist in New York City, and is forced to move the family cross-country to his hometown. There, Hilde is patronized by virtually every adult she comes across and bullied by kids her age for her journalistic endeavors. In one vital, heartbreaking scene, the weight of the move and unemployment gets to Matt, and he does the same.

“Why can’t you just be a little kid for once in your life? Just go to school, come home, do your homework, eat, sleep, rinse repeat, it’s not that hard,” Matt yells at Hilde.

Rather than opting for “the kiddie version” of Hilde’s story, Fox says she was far more interested in doing a crime drama about the disappearance of childhood, the “elegiac longing” to take back words and actions that never leave you as you grow older.

“The whole show is about nostalgia — for her childhood, for the father’s childhood, the desire to repair the mistakes you make as a young person that come back to haunt you,” Fox says. “At the beginning of the season, Brooklynn is an 8-year-old child, and at the end she’s still 8 years old, but she’s not a child anymore.”

Fox says she, like Hilde, was a little girl who acted like she was 40 when she was in fact 10. Growing up she had a little detective business, for which she created posters and delivered them to her neighbor’s houses. While no one ever commissioned her to do any snooping around, Fox says she felt secure in the fact that her parents took her seriously, an example she wanted to replicate with “Home Before Dark.”

“Now that I’m a parent I’ve tried to do the same,” Fox says. “I wanted to have the show take this heroine as seriously Denzel Washington, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harrison Ford — the treatment that all these guys get, I wanted to do that for a little girl.”

Similarly with their updated “Nancy Drew,” Landau and Hsu Taylor wanted to capture a young woman who has a rocky relationship with her father, and who is at a juncture in her life where things haven’t gone according to plan.

“For me that was very meaningful because my relationship with my father wasn’t the way that Nancy and Carson Drew got along in the books,” Hsu Taylor says. “I think a lot of people don’t have a perfect relationship with their father and I think they gravitate towards stories that tell them it’s possible, that tell them out there could be somebody who could be the father you wish your dad had been.”

There have been plenty of Nancy Drews over the decades. The 1920s Nancy Drew was a flapper, the ‘50s Nancy Drew was a good girl who did what she was told, the ’70s Nancy Drew broke through on television for the first time, and the ’90s Nancy Drew “wore really great short shorts,” as Landau puts it.

Each was uniquely a product of their time, and the two producers made sure that the 2019 Nancy was no different.

“For our version, a lot of who she is was influenced by the #MeToo movement,” Landau says, “as well as the idea of diversity — the idea of someone who doesn’t quite fit the mold being the person who has to solve the crimes.”

The very first episode of the CW version introduces Nancy as she’s getting dressed after casual sex with Ned ‘Nick’ Nickerson (Tunji Kasim) in the back of his auto repair shop.

Landau and Taylor recall that when they were testing the pilot, there were many who were not onboard with this racier take on the amateur teen sleuth. Several people “just couldn’t handle” that this Nancy Drew had sex, they say.

“I remember it being a lesson as a writer and a producer that you’re never going to make everyone happy, there’s always going to be some people who are up in arms and to be fair, this show probably isn’t for them,” Landau says. “Once you get used to young women having good, consensual sex with someone who cares about them, your whole world opens up.”

Although “Home Before Dark” and “Nancy Drew” tackle more “adult” themes, including online abuse and the loss of a parent, respectively, both still seek to present versions of a young woman or girl who continues to never gives up on her instinct to root out the truth.

“Hilde is not some little girl detective; she’s an investigative journalist. It was important to me that she doesn’t have a superpower, she doesn’t have photographic memory, her super power is that she’s a strong little girl that doesn’t give up,” Fox says.

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