Well this came out of nowhere and hit us completely by surprise! We knew Eleventh Hour Films and Sony Pictures Television were making this show despite having not sold it to a distributor. Then we heard a bidding war was underway and saw the trailer. Then it went quiet. Maybe we just missed it? So imagine my surprise when casually flicking through Amazon Prime last night when I saw Alex Rider listed as a new show exclusive to Amazon.
Having nothing better to do I hit play, cracked open a beer and settled down to watch episode one.
Before going into this I was fairly vague on Alex Rider. I know Anthony Horowitz’s series of young adult novels is very highly rated among teens. I know they have sold twenty million copies worldwide. I know it is frequently called Harry Potter but about spies instead of wizards. I know the rough story line thanks to the movie, Stormbreaker, that flopped and killed the franchise at birth in 2006.
An orphaned teen boy who lives with his wealthy guardian uncle who encourages him to study languages, technology and politics while excelling at sport at school. When his uncle, who works at an investment bank, is not on regular business overseas, they engage in many adventurous activities together. Motocross, skiing, scuba diving, car racing, boxing, shooting, climbing, and martial arts.
When his uncle fails to return from a business trip the truth is revealed. Not only was his uncle one of the British government’s top intelligence operatives, but all these extreme hobbies and premium education have been for a reason.
I went into this with average expectations. I am also not the usual audience for a young adult tale. It was a new show on Amazon so I thought I would give it a go for the sake of a potential review here if it was worth it.
And it is worth it. It is very, very worth it.
I am staggered by how good this is, for a young adult show. It is seriously impressive. All the time I was watching this I was thinking that it really had no right to be as good as it was, and then it stayed good.
From a nice snappy opening that introduces a mystery via a murder, it segues into some nicely short-lived, but modern Bond-esque titles before getting straight into things. The normalcy of teen existence is laid out well and doesn’t drag before the adventure starts. References to Alex’s last holiday being a scuba diving and rainforest canopy climbing expedition are dropped in without laboring a point. A cheeky Taken joke is dropped in about “a particular set of skills”.
It is a sign of how well constructed overall this show is that the standard trope of a rebellious yet geeky friend who is a bad influence on Alex is even handled well without outstaying it’s welcome or getting annoying.
Then the espionage side of things starts up… and how! I was caught completely off-guard by the tone they went for in a young adult story. Warning here that it may be a bit too intense for younger, or sensitive, children. It really is quite dark. There is murder, bereavement, capture, rendition and torture all set against a backdrop of some of London’s grimier parts. This is miles away in tone from the Stormbreaker movie that was a shiny hyper-realised comic book at times. Forget Spy Kids, this is teenage 24 and it is better for it as it juxtaposes Alex’s school and home life against the dirty world of his Uncle’s secret life making the difference between the two worlds more stark. They nail the tone brilliantly by playing this totally straight despite the fantastic nature of the central premise.
Speaking of the dirty world Alex steps into, this is also a surprise. No clear good guys and bad guys here. His Uncle’s employers turn out to be every bit as morally ambiguous. Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon in Game Of Thrones) is on absolutely top form as a darker version of M. No jolly spy japes here.
He just sees Alex as a tool to get what he needs and isn’t adverse to applying pressure to what Alex loves in order to make Alex comply. By the time a scene lays this out through use of Child Protective Services, immigration officials and even a grief counselor doing the murky organisations bidding, I was totally invested in the idea that this man would place a child in harms way to get his outcomes.
The kid who plays Alex, Otto Farrant, is another good reason why this show exceeds it’s competitors in the young adult space. He is natural and in no way annoying or precocious like a lot of actors of his age. He sells it well.
Of course, this is 2020 so some things are changed up. The character of housekeeper Jack, played by Alicia Silverstone as a flirty potential teenage infatuation focus for Alex in the movie, is replaced by the standard sassy black chick and no longer flirtatious. As with the geeky friend though, this new version is likable and an important character in the proceedings.
The other operatives are a good spread, with some genuinely horrified that their organisation would drag a kid into their world. My favorite character so far is a mean and nasty hulk of an interrogator, paid to inflict pain and extract information, who unexpectedly shows a very human side questioning if he wants to be in an organisation that would use a child in this way.
The look and feel is top quality. I googled cinematographer Ben Wheeler during the show as I was that impressed with the work and was surprised to learn he was cinematographer on The Inbetweeners. Clearly a talent to watch as he makes the whole affair moody and atmospheric in a way that pulls you in.
What I like most is that this is a show for you parents out there to sit down, watch and enjoy with their kids. It really is good enough to hold your attention while being the ultimate wish for fulfillment for the teenaged James Bond fan in your household. So far it doesn’t lecture you like new Doctor Who, or insult you like most family shows. This one really is for the Dad’s to watch with their sons, but Mum’s and daughters will enjoy it too. Finally family viewing that doesn’t make you want to pull your own eyes out! No family, no problem. It really is worth your time compared to a lot of the stuff out there at the moment.
Try it. You might like it! Please, though, bear in mind what I said earlier about this most definitely not being Spy Kids, or James Bond Jr. It goes to surprisingly dark places very quickly.
When episode one finished I was pleased to see all episodes were available and immediately watched a couple more. That is clearly a sign of a show doing it’s job. The only question left to ask is this: What the hell Amazon? Why are you keeping this show quiet and seemingly sneaked it out? This is a victory for decent family TV in a world of dross.