The Spool / Reviews
Dead Boy Detectives traps itself between heaven and hell
Netflix’s adaptation of the Vertigo comics series can’t decide to embrace its heart or play it snarky.
NetworkNetflix
SimilarAgatha Christie's Poirot Ah! My Goddess, Amazing Stories, American Gothic, American Horror Story, Angel, Arrow, Batman, Baywatch Nights, Birds of Prey, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Captain Star, Constantine: City of Demons, Dante's Cove, Deadly Class, Dinner Mate, Erased, Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes, Flash Gordon GARO, Il Mondo di Yor, KO One, Longing Heart, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Sherlock Holmes Silver Surfer, Six Survivors, Sonic the Hedgehog, Spider-Man: The New Animated Series, Suicide Squad ISEKAI, Tales from the Crypt, The Avengers: United They Stand, The Boys, The Fantastic Four, The Flash, The Incredible Hulk, The Umbrella Academy, X-Men: Evolution,
StudioBerlanti Productions, Warner Bros. Television
6.8
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Dead Boy Detectives is, by its nature, a strange beast. Both a spinoff of MAX’s now-finished Doom Patrol series and Netflix’s own Sandman, it began as a sort of backdoor pilot two and a half years ago in the third episode of Doom Patrol Season 3. However, this series tossed the actors portraying the Boys and their living friend Crystal for an entirely different trio of performers. Now George Rextrew plays Edwin, the uptight turn-of-the-century boy. Jayden Revri steps into the jacket of Edwin’s late 80s punk adjacent partner Charles. Finally, Kassius Nelson portrays their modern and still of this mortal plane third wheel, teen medium Crystal Palace.

Soon after meeting and freeing Crystal from the clutches of a demon named David (David Iacono), the boys take her in, although Edwin is less than thrilled at the idea. Missing large chunks of her memory, she is anxious to throw herself into the boys’ work investigating cases for and about ghosts, usually in the name of sending them off to the Great Beyond. Their first case as a trio takes them away from their English home to Port Townsend, WA. Unfortunately, even after they close the case, forces conspire to keep the three stuck in the town. With only time to waste, they decide to make the best of it by solving the problems of Townsend’s surprisingly bustling phantom population.

Dead Boy Detectives (Netflix)
Kassius Nelson accesses those spooky-ooky powers. (Netflix)

This kind of “neither here nor there” of the show’s beginning and the characters’ “house arrest” soon reveals itself as a kind of meta reflection of the series itself. Steve Yockey, the writer of that backdoor pilot episode and the creator of this series, clearly has enthusiasm and love for the concept and the characters. The central relationship between the spectral friends has a striking sweetness without being cloying. The two’s connection never feels in doubt, even as they bicker or revelations of unrequited sexual attraction come to light. The scripting deftly avoids needless “can their friendship survive” melodrama or after-school special syrupiness. It doesn’t hurt that, despite the roster change, Rexstrew and Revri wear the roles like comfortable clothes. They give Edwin and Charles a casual depth that extends behind their simple archetypes.

The show’s visions of the afterlife are also striking, even if other media has presented similar ideas. The beings in charge of sorting the dead work in a bureaucracy that recalls the switchboard operators of the John Wick franchise, with less tattoos. Once banished from Crystal’s body, Danny lives on in an abandoned roller rink overseen by a trio of large floating eyes. Hell is fittingly banal in places with relatably unpleasant discomforts like an eternity of self-adminstered papercuts. Other sections offer fiendishly simple tortures like an endless orgy that satisfies no one. Of course, no trip to Hell would be complete without some kind of nightmare fuel, and a giant spider made up of old discarded doll heads fulfills that need nicely.

Dead Boy Detectives (Netflix)
Yuyu Kitamura raises a ruckus. (Ed Araquel/Netflix)

Aggravatingly, Dead Boy Detectives’ tone frequently undercuts and overwhelms the series’ central soft heart. Too often, it feels snarky to the point of smugness. It’s too pleased with itself by half, sending this reviewer too often bouncing off when I wanted to feel drawn in. It’s a descendant of the shows made and helmed by Joss Whedon and his acolytes (in the creative sphere—not intending to lay his personal sins at their feet). Sadly, it mostly only carries those programs’ irreverence forward. There’s not enough of the sense of teen struggle and maturation that made those series feel like comfort television even as they took a body count.

There’s also a self-consciousness that can call attention to the Dead Boy Detectives’ shortcomings. They lampshade things in such a way that doesn’t get the viewer on their side. Instead, it leaves one wondering, “If you knew this was a problem, why didn’t you fix it?”. For instance, when the youth-obsessed town witch Esther (Jenn Lyon) engages in a battle of insults and physical assault with the Cat King (Lukas Gage), the monarch comments how he hates the expression, “More than one way to skin a cat,” at nearly the same time Esther invokes the same. That’s followed, mere moments later, but a nine lives gag. When the writing calls these moments out, it doesn’t feel like a wink to the audience. Rather, it just highlights two cat-cliché based jokes that don’t work.

Dead Boy Detectives (Netflix)
George Rexstrew and Jayden Revri are here to listen. (David Bukach/Netflix)

In the department of nitpicking, there is also the matter of the actors’ ages compared to their characters. Rexstrew and Revri get away with being 20-something teens because they’re men out of time. People looked older in the past, so it is easier to accept these ghosts as teens. On the other hand, Nelson and a later added fourth member of the gang, Niko (Yuyu Kitamura), are in their mid-20s and look like it. They are exceptionally beautiful, as most actors are, but they’re adults, not teens. 

In shows based in high schools, it is easy to overlook or forgive this sort of thing. After all, its a necessity of the work. However, here, where no one attends school, the series’ repeated insistence on calling them teens feels like a self-inflicted wound. Whenever someone invokes their ages, the show could’ve gotten the same effect by using a more generic “young.” Instead, Dead Boy Detectives reminds over and over of the falseness of its world. Again, it pushes viewers away rather than draws them in. 

Given that I’m largely ok with the show, these criticisms likely feel a bit heavy and harsh. That tone comes, in part, because the series feels largely ok. Something better is so close at hand for Yockey and his team. Seeing them hobbled by issues they appear to have the talent to fix becomes increasingly frustrating. There’s so much to like in the central duo’s long-standing relationship and the central quartet’s developing bonds. Therefore, every time Dead Boy Detective trips on its own laces, calling out a weak gag or spooning on the snark too thick, it feels that much more disappointing. Television that scrapes and crawls itself to mediocre, I can live with. Television that feels like it could elevate with a little more elbow grease but doesn’t, on the other hand? That breaks my heart a bit.

Dead Boy Detectives make like translucent Columbos starting April 25 on Netflix.

NetworkNetflix
SimilarAgatha Christie's Poirot Ah! My Goddess, Amazing Stories, American Gothic, American Horror Story, Angel, Arrow, Batman, Baywatch Nights, Birds of Prey, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Captain Star, Constantine: City of Demons, Dante's Cove, Deadly Class, Dinner Mate, Erased, Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes, Flash Gordon GARO, Il Mondo di Yor, KO One, Longing Heart, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Sherlock Holmes Silver Surfer, Six Survivors, Sonic the Hedgehog, Spider-Man: The New Animated Series, Suicide Squad ISEKAI, Tales from the Crypt, The Avengers: United They Stand, The Boys, The Fantastic Four, The Flash, The Incredible Hulk, The Umbrella Academy, X-Men: Evolution,
StudioBerlanti Productions, Warner Bros. Television