Apple TV+’s new mystery series isn’t entirely consistent, but it blends childlike wonder with real-life injustice to engaging effect.
Contrary to the popular adage, crime does pay; but not for the criminals, just for the production companies that buy the rights. True crime series are all the rage and it’s no surprise that Apple TV+ is throwing their hat into that ring with their newest mystery drama Home Before Dark, produced by Jon M. Chu, Dara Resnik, and Dana Fox.
Actually, “true crime” isn’t the right term. While the premise is inspired by real life child journalist Hilde Lysiak, the show is a work of fiction that takes her passion for crime reporting and the names of her family from real life. It then discards the rest in favor of a binge-worthy story line.
The fictionalized Hilde (Brooklynn Prince), a 9-year-old whose last name has been changed to Lisko, has moved from Brooklyn to Erie Harbor, Washington after her dad, Matthew (Jim Sturgess), lost his job as a reporter. The move is financially sound since they are living for free in Matthew’s childhood home, but he’s visibly upset by the move and it’s putting friction on the family. While Hilde’s sisters Izzy (Kylie Rogers) and Ginny (Mila Morgan) seem to like the town, she’s suspicious of its ostensibly quaint nature.
Her suspicions are confirmed when Matthew’s childhood friend Penny is found dead. Despite being ruled an accident, Hilde suspects foul play. Determined to find the truth, she writes an article for her school’s blog, which attracts the ire of her principal, Kim Collins (Joelle Carter), police officer Frank Brigg Jr. (Michael Weston), and his Sherrif father (Louis Hertham). But Hilde’s investigation leads her not only into Erie Harbor’s past, but her father’s as well.
Apple TV+ is known for getting pedigreed show creators, and Fox and Resnik are no slouches in that department. Resnik is an obvious choice for a mystery drama, having written and produced series like Daredevil and Castle. Fox, however, is known for writing romantic comedies and has only been a showrunner for sitcom Ben and Kate. They may be an odd couple, but they’re an effective one. With its complex mystery juxtaposed against a lighthearted tone, Home Before Dark is a satisfying mix of Harriet the Spy and Making a Murderer.
Even beyond that, Home Before Dark explores the corruption and prejudices of a small town in what becomes its biggest draw. Watching a young girl fight the system is thrilling and allows Prince to shine. In a media landscape where young actresses are usually only allowed to play bratty or cute, it’s refreshing to see Prince give Hilde a tenacity. What could be irritating in real life is captivating on screen.
But while Hilde gains strength from her investigation, the past is a drain on her parents. Sturgess plays Matthew as a man on the edge of a breakdown due to what he’s seen as a child, going from quiet and caring to angry at a moment’s notice. Consequently, Hilde’s mom, Bridget (Abby Miller), has to deal not only with his issues, but also a town that resents both Hilde and Matt. Thankfully, Miller plays her with strength tinged with exasperation.
With its complex mystery juxtaposed against a lighthearted tone, Home Before Dark is a satisfying mix of Harriet the Spy and Making a Murderer.
But the show tends to flounder when it steps away from the mystery. This is most apparent with Hilde’s older sister, Izzy; while it’s interesting to see how she processes her resentment towards Hilde’s antics, most of Izzy’s screen time has her dealing with typical teen plots like young love and dealing with mean girls.
Fox and Resnik are also hit or miss when writing the social justice aspects of the show. When these aspects are woven into the narrative—like how the white police force is eager to convict an indiginous man—it works well. However, at times it can be ham-fisted (case in point: a moment when Hilde says, “Nevertheless, I persisted”). It’s understandable in theory that a family show wants to be less than subtle.
Some events driven by one-dimensional misogyny (such as Hilde being told to play with dolls instead of reporting on a crime) actually happened to the real-life Hilde, but these moments are pandering in the execution. There are also some tonal issues; the show mixes kid-friendly elements like inspiring monologues and food fights with some rather adult language, mentions of pedophilia, and a shot from a particularly gruesome death scene from Pet Sematary.
Apple’s decision to produce a show that is inspired by a real journalist as opposed to any specific crime is a wise one. Not only does it allow the writers more control over the plot, but it also allows the world to open up for future seasons after the mystery is solved. But while I’m eager to return to Erie Harbor, the best part about this show was learning about the real-life Hilde Lysiak. At just 13, she’s already running a news blog, has stood up to local law enforcement, and is the youngest person in America to give a commencement speech to a graduating class. Once the final episode ends, it only feels natural to look her up.
The first three episodes of Home Before Dark hit Apple TV+ this Friday, April 3.