Alex Rider review: Amazon Prime Video's teen spy drama tries too hard to please everyone
In trying to make Anthony Horowitz's bestseller at once family friendly and grittier, the TV series could risk alienating viewers and fans of the books.
*Warning: mild spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn't read the books*
Last summer when RadioTimes.com interviewed various cast and crew members on the Alex Rider set, everyone was very keen to stress how the show, an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s bestselling books, would be aimed at everyone. The eight-part drama about a reluctant teen spy (played by Otto Farrant) would appeal to both young and old.
“[We’re] making a relevant TV show for anyone,” enthused Brenock O’Connor (the kid who stabs Jon Snow in Game of Thrones), who plays Alex’s eccentric civilian bestie, Tom.
Speaking inside a dingy office block in Whitechapel, London (on-screen it serves as the headquarters for a MI6 'subdivision’), Horowitz elaborated: "You cannot make television at this sort of price level for just a kid audience, or for even for a teen audience, it's got to be a wide audience."
The show, everyone promised, would be darker, "grittier" (a descriptive that cropped up several times), while a wisecracking teenage girl (Kyra, who’s not in the books) has been added to the line-up, a sop to those who have pointed out how male-centric the early books are.
But what we end up with is a show that’s trying too hard to please everyone - a move which could risk alienating viewers.
In the first two episodes, there’s not a ‘gadget’ in sight, and both Horowitz and screenwriter Guy Burt have stressed that they wanted to steer clear of the usual exploding Rubik’s Cubes or exploding ear studs that pepper the books (“The gadget side of it… gets a little bit back to childishness again,” Hororwitz said). But not only does that decision potentially alienate the kids who love the gadgets, but it’s undermined by how the pilot episode actually kicks off with campy, gimmicky tech: a holographic elevator floor that a man accidentally falls through.
While Kyra, the female character whom Burt has invented for the show, hasn’t yet appeared, so far there’s no sense that watching the show will be any less isolating for young girls than reading the earlier books was. Vicky McClure is woefully underused as Alex’s handler, Mrs Jones, and her character’s hectoring and lecturing continually falls on deaf male ears.
Meanwhile in episode one, Alex and Tom attend a PG-rated teen houseparty (Skins this is not), and the only attendee who’s both drunk and horny is the girl Tom is unwittingly charming with his extensive X-Men trivia (teen-boy wish fulfilment klaxon!). She tells him he’s cute, before promptly vomiting into his lap.
"I think I just pulled," the disbelieving Tom informs Alex, to the sound of more hurls from the viewers at home.
Little do the two boys know that at that very moment, Alex’s supposedly boring uncle Ian, a ‘banker’, is at that very moment engaged in a tense stand-off, a gun pointed to his head. Screenwriter Burt makes the smart move to introduce us to Ian before killing him off - a change from the first Alex Rider book, which starts with Alex discovering his uncle has died. Viewers get a chance to see the uncle-nephew dynamic, although not for very long, before Ian is shot off-screen (no blood - remember, it’s a show for kids. Sorry, teens. Sorry, adults. Sorry, families. Sorry, everyone).
When police come knocking, Alex is immediately suspicious of the line that his uncle has died in a car crash due to his speeding (another change from the books, in which Alex is told Ian wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Presumably fewer people wore seatbelts 20 years ago).
Otto Farrant is great in the role of Alex, making him a more vulnerable character while also taking on plenty of the stunts - climbing, furiously cycling after secret service cars - himself. Comparisons may be made between Farrant and Alex Pettyfer, who played Rider in the 2006 film Stormbreaker, but those can only be positive - only Pinnochio would ever have a chance of being more wooden than Pettyfer was in that role.
When the bereaved teen catches up with his uncle’s real colleagues, the mysterious MI6 subdivision headed up by Alan Blunt, the grieving boy is offered a deal: help us, or we’ll deport your beloved housekeeper and send you into care. (That’s actually in the book series. Bleak.) Alex initially tells them all to "piss off" - a line, incidentally, that was oft-quoted on set as a great example of the show’s “grittiness," but which comes across a little forced, a little petulant.
All in all, there are some high points in the otherwise uneven opening episodes, chiefly Otto Farrant’s performance. But this show needs to figure out its tone and target audience - and quickly.
Check out what else is on with our TV Guide