Some of our greatest detectives have been children, from Encyclopedia Brown to Nancy Drew. Okay, those ones are fictional but they no doubt set the stage for Dana Fox and Dara Resnik’s new series, “Home Before Dark.” Based on the life of real child journalist Hilde Lysiak, the new series for Apple TV+ is equal parts biopic, old-school mystery, and classic children’s programming that will easily draw comparisons to the likes of “Ghostwriter” and “Eerie Indiana.”
“Florida Project” star Brooklynn Prince plays the series’ take on Hilde, changing her last name to Lisko for reasons that don’t feel clear. Her father, Matt (Jim Sturgess) is a former investigative journalist in New York who, after losing his job, uproots the family from Brooklyn and moves them to his hometown of Erie Harbor. But as we’ve seen in countless shows wherein a person vows never to return to their hometown, it doesn’t take long for Hilde to discover that her father’s secrets are waiting to welcome him.
Like most good family programming, “Home Before Dark” does its best to appeal to everyone and that’s easy to do with a compelling mystery — but where it stumbles is the introduction of numerous side characters and themes intending to broaden the audience. Though based on a real girl, the show’s portrayal of Hilde Lisko presents her as a middle-school oddball whose father took her to crime scenes because they couldn’t afford a babysitter. As she’s grown, she’s taken that reporter spirit to heart, being able to recite Jason Robards’ entire speech from “All the President’s Men” and, like the Olsen twins before her, is ready to solve any crime by dinnertime. The family’s move to Erie Harbor serves to situate Hilde as even more of an outcast, one whose moral code puts her at odds with her older sister, Izzy (Kylie Rogers) who just wants to have the teenage experience of being cool and maybe having a boyfriend.
Almost immediately, Hilde stumbles onto the murder of a local woman named Penny Gillis (Sharon Taylor) and from there the story’s central arc unfolds. Hilde has to find out who murdered Penny and what, if anything, that has to do with her father’s childhood relationship with local boy Richie Fife, who was kidnapped back in 1988. As Hilde starts her investigation, reporting for her newly invented newspaper The Magic Hour Chronicle, her father attempts to reconnect with his father, Sylvester (Reed Birney) and Hilde’s prosecutor mother (Abby Miller) defends Penny’s incarcerated brother who is presumed to have been Richie’s kidnapper.
Hilde and the mystery of Richie Fife is, unsurprisingly, what keeps “Home Before Dark” such a compelling watch. Brooklyn Prince’s passion for the role is evident, especially in the moments she has to stand up to the town sheriff who, she believes, is corrupt. At the same time, Matt, Hilde’s mother, and Izzy, are chronically reminding Hilde that she’s a child. And while the back-and-forth gets a bit tedious — there are several moments where the parents attempt to force Hilde to give up reporting only to roll their eyes and say, “Oh, fine!” — Prince can just as easily give us the child within. When things get tough, she needs her parents. Prince simply has to drum up some tears and it’s enough to get the audience to want to pat her head and help her through the problem.
The series is at its strongest when Prince and Sturgess are acting off each other. In fact, their father-daughter chemistry is so strong it’d be enough to have the two lead this entire series solo. Sturgess, on his own, plays the broken reporter so well that it almost comes off like his character Jude from “Across the Universe” just found a different line of work. Haunted by the disappearance of Richie Fife, as well as another missing person’s case that saw him possibly cheat on his wife, Matt is yearning for something to give him meaning. It’s apparent in his darling interactions with his family that they fill that void, but it’s only temporary. As Matt struggles with his inner demons, stemming the flow with alcohol here and there, he becomes the damaged character you want to see succeed. And he believes in Hilde so much! When he gives her his blessing it’s akin to being anointed. If these two traveled the globe solving crimes you’d have a recipe for success.
But, more often than not, what bonds the audience to Hilde is her tenacity and that puts her in a weird stage of being an adult in a child’s body. The series goes the “C.S.I.” route of zooming in on bits of evidence only Hilde can see or presenting certain flashbacks as child-esque cutout drawings. There’s a lot happening within the series, and at over 40 minutes per episode there are elements that are superfluous, as though built to appeal to all family experiences. Izzy’s plotline is firmly in the vein of typical teen drama as she bemoans her annoying little sister while taking flack from the popular girls. It’s understandable that there’d be a desire for a teen angle, but Izzy feels like such a generically disparate character, aided by Rogers’ affectless portrayal, that it’s hard to connect with her.
There’s a sheer abundance of side characters, all of whom are solid but fail to touch the gap Sturgess and Prince carve out for themselves. Joelle Carter turns the typical children’s principal into a woman who isn’t hardened or cynical, as tends to be the tack with most schoolteachers on television — she’s no Mrs. Krabapple, but she has been hurt and is just as haunted as Matt. The questionable love triangle is a taste hammy, especially with the flashbacks inserted here and there, but the actors are good enough for you to ignore that. Michael Weston also stands out, more so because he’s only one of a handful of recognizable actors, as the sheriff’s son with his own connections to 1988.
“Home Before Dark” ends with one storyline secured and a bevy of loose threads just seeking exploration. If you still find yourself watching “Are You Afraid of the Dark” reruns, “Home Before Dark” scratches that itch in the same way. Directors Jon M. Chu, Rosemary Rodriguez and Kat Candler create a smoky, eerie landscape of dark woods and suspense with Brooklyn Prince’s Hilde Lisko ready to jump in and overcome. Just prepare for some filler here.
“Home Before Dark” streams on Apple TV+ starting April 3rd.