Dead Boy Detectives review: Convoluted ghost show doesn’t have much chance of an afterlife

This Netflix series, which has echoes of ‘Riverdale’ and ‘Lockwood & Co’, is likely to give viewers a sense of deja vu

Katie Rosseinsky
Thursday 25 April 2024 06:00 BST
Dead Boy Detectives teaser

Press play on Dead Boy Detectives and you’ll probably be hit with an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Haven’t you already watched a CGI-laden show about teenagers trying to solve crimes and fight ghosts? That was Lockwood & Co, a YA fantasy series that arrived on Netflix with much fanfare last year, only for it to be cancelled a few months later. And what does the moody lighting interspersed with bursts of neon remind you of? That’d be Riverdale or the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, both of which also bear the hallmarks of Dead Boy Detectivesexecutive producer Greg Berlanti.

Throw in the fact that this new series is also set within the same universe as The Sandman, Netflix’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comic book, and you might, like me, end up rolling your eyes and muttering about “commissioning by algorithm”. In fact, Dead Boy Detectives feels a lot like an amalgam of bits and pieces that have worked for the streamer before, rather than a cohesive creation.

The “dead boys” in question are Edwin Payne and Charles Rowland, a pair of teenage ghosts who first appeared in a 1991 edition of The Sandman, and later starred in a DC comic book series of their own. Edwin, played by newcomer George Rexstrew in the TV adaptation, is a bow tie-wearing boarding-school boy from the 1910s, killed by a bunch of bullies attempting a demonic rite. He is sharp, studious and a bit of a stick in the mud. Naturally, his best friend and fellow sleuth Charles (Jayden Revri) is Edwin’s polar opposite in almost every possible way: he’s an easy-going Nineties boy with an earring and a “make it up as you go along” approach (which often tends to involve the magical cricket bat that he lugs around wherever he goes).

Both of them are stuck in limbo between the worlds of the living and the dead – in the first episode, we see them hide from Death, with Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s anti-Grim Reaper from The Sandman making an early cameo. Their shared purpose is to help their fellow phantoms – and sometimes the odd human – by unravelling mysteries at their detective agency: they are “ghosts solving the cases no one else can”. When we first meet them, the duo are slap-bang in the middle of a supernatural caper, pursued by a traumatised ghost in a gas mask; this First World War-era spook has been unsettled by a new museum exhibit remembering the conflict.

George Rexstrew as Edwin, Jayden Revri as Charles and Kassius Nelson as Crystal in ‘Dead Boy Detectives’
George Rexstrew as Edwin, Jayden Revri as Charles and Kassius Nelson as Crystal in ‘Dead Boy Detectives’ (Netflix)

There are a lot of head-spinning quick cuts as the boys hop from location to location – they can travel through mirrors because they’re ghosts, we learn in snatches of expository dialogue. This isn’t just a matter of first-episode scene-setting – characters keep having to regurgitate big chunks of fantasy lore or explain various magical creatures or objects to keep the viewer abreast of exactly what is going on.

When a Victorian girl ghost arrives at the agency with a new case, the pair end up befriending Crystal (Kassius Nelson), a (living) clairvoyant whose psychic skills prove pretty useful. But swathes of Crystal’s memories have gone awol thanks to an encounter with a demon (who has the distinctly un-demonic name of “David”, which for some reason made me laugh more than many of the actual punch lines). Her attempts to recapture her memories act as a narrative thread throughout the episodes; otherwise, the cases tend to be wrapped up by the end of each instalment, a bit like Scooby-Doo, or a very zany, paranormal spin on an ITV3 detective drama.

There’s stuff to like here: The White Lotus’s Lukas Gage is plenty of fun as one of the show’s more memorable villains, the Cat King, who seems to have burst straight out of a cursed production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber show, and Rexstrew and Revri are charming leads. But it’s not enough to make you want to stick with the convoluted, but somehow still predictable, plotting. I’m not convinced this one will have much of an afterlife.

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