A spy is born in the surprisingly fresh “Alex Rider”

Alex Rider Otto Farrant and Vicky McClure in Alex Rider. (IMDb TV)

Guy Burt combines the quirky fun of a teen James Bond with espionage drama in the adaptation of the popular book series.

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Based on a series of teen spy novels from the early 2000s by Anthony Horowitz, the wonderful new show Alex Rider adds a sensible twist to a tried-and-true formula. Kids come of age in exciting worlds of intrigue, thrills, and even a little violence. The catch this time around is that show creator Guy Burt and his creative team have taken a somewhat slight and obvious reaction to the James Bond mythos and allowed it to grow up exponentially. This new take on Alex Rider is sleeker, edgier, and far more mature than the 2006 movie adaptation without losing any of the charm audiences should reasonably expect.

Otto Farrant plays the eponymous character, a seemingly ordinary London teen who, without realizing it, has been secretly trained all his life by his Uncle Ian (Andrew Buchan). As such, he has a wide array of skills, such as combat training, tactical knowledge, and even resistance to interrogation. It turns out Uncle Ian works for a subdivision of MI6, and after a botched mission, Alex is forced to help this shady agency infiltrate a boarding school in the French Alps known as Point Blanc.

Alex Rider

The story elements are almost evenly split between the first two books in the series, focusing primarily on the plot of the second book (Point Blanc) while working in characters, villains, and other introductory elements from the first entry (Stormbreaker). The result is a satisfying fusion of what made those books work with very little of what would otherwise age those stories all these years later. It’s no exaggeration to call the first season of Alex Rider one of the most binge-able spy shows in the last year, and considering its early release in the UK this past summer, the States are fortunate to finally get their eyes on these eight episodes.

It eschews the episodic “villain-of-the-week” structure more typical of spy thriller shows in favor of an ongoing narrative, which further adapts this aging story to the times. Rather than feel like a dragged-out distraction, you might find yourself paining to watch what happens next. The show is sometimes predictable in its plotting (especially if you’re already familiar with the books), but the flourishes in production design and cliffhangers are where Alex Rider shines.

One of the most welcome additions to the show’s themes is an emphasis on Alex’s absurd position as a teenager being illegally roped into deadly spy games, an element the previous stories have been content to mostly downplay. Here, the situation is treated as believably controversial amongst its own characters, particularly Alex’s best friend, Tom (Brenock O’Connor), who gracefully transitions from out-of-the-loop goofball to the show’s heart. This is a show that actually considers the trauma and distress Alex goes through in his new life as an unwitting pawn of MI6, and he’s competent enough to be exciting to watch while still being a vulnerable teenager. Rather than root for Alex to save the day, you might be more likely to wish this kid could just go home to his friends.

Alex Rider is sleeker, edgier, and far more mature than the 2006 movie adaptation without losing any of the charm audiences should reasonably expect.

Some audiences will certainly have a harder time finding themselves invested in this consistently heightened world, and there are plenty of logical inconsistencies to point out. But thanks to some sharp writing and committed performances, it’s just as easy to get lost in this adventure. The supporting cast is memorable too, with surprising turns from Stephen Dillane as subdivision leader Alan Blunt and Vicky McClure as Mrs. Jones, Alex’s handler. Rounding out Alex’s real life is Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo as Jack Starbright, Alex’s American caregiver, who serves as a frequent reminder of what home and normalcy should look like for our hero.

But it doesn’t take long for “normal” to go out the window. Once the second season comes along, I hope the showrunners examine some of these themes even further, digging into how a life of espionage can be just as alluring for Alex as it is dangerous. Hopefully, the show can continue to evolve some of its sillier source material and, like Alex himself, become the best of what it can be.

Season 1 of Alex Rider hits IMDb TV this Friday, November 13.

Alex Rider Trailer:

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