Judge Paul Corupe reviews the TV series that has something for everyone.
Our review of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries: Season Two, published June 20th, 2007, is also available.
The Case of the Purloined Extras!
At the turn of the century, writer, editor, and publisher Edward Stratemeyer should have been the biggest name going in American publishing. Had he not employed dozens of pseudonyms while writing over 150 dime novels like Dashing Dave, the Ever Ready Detective, and Joe Johnson, the Bicycle Wonder, Stratemeyer would no doubt have been appreciated for his prolific, if not particularly well-written, contribution to young adult literature. Stratemeyer's biggest hit was a popular kiddie series called The Rover Boys, and based on their success, the entrepreneur launched a new innovative publishing idea that not only made his name known, but finally crowned him as "the king of the juveniles."
Instead of actually putting pen to paper himself, Stratemeyer decided it might be more economical to create and maintain the rights to several different series, and contract the work out to other authors willing to follow his written outlines. With this method, he created more than 125 different series for the publishing house of Grosset & Dunlap, including Tom Swift, The Bobbsey Twins, and Bomba the Jungle Boy. He issued these largely formulaic books in clothbound 50-cent editions both to distinguish them from their pulp novel peers, and to increase their legitimacy with the parents of eager young reader. By the 1920s, Stratemeyer was a phenomenon, and his large staff, known as the "Syndicate," pumped out an astounding 30 books per year. As the decade ended, Stratemeyer also hit upon his most enduring creation—a series of teenage mystery novels called "The Hardy Boys." The first nine Hardy Boys books, written by Canadian author, filmmaker, and all-around Renaissance man Leslie McFarlane under the penname Franklin W. Dixon, were instant successes, prompting Stratemeyer to attempt a second, similar series for girls. As Carolyn Keene, Mildred Wert guided the young, independent Nancy Drew through eight mysteries in the 1930s, which were even bigger sensations. Both series continued to be extremely popular even after Stratemeyer's death, with many new authors assuming the identities of Dixon and Keene in incarnations of the originals that last until this day. Despite capturing the minds of young readers for more than 70 years, however, Stratemeyer's time-tested characters never really found success on the big or small screen, with only the 1977's The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries coming close to bringing the colorful worlds of these infamous teenage crime busters to life.
Facts of the Case
From their basement crime lab in their hometown of Bayport, adolescent sleuths Frank (Parker Stevenson, Stroker Ace) and Joe Hardy (Shaun Cassidy, General Hospital) help their father, private investigator and ex-cop Fenton Hardy (Edmund Gilbert) with a variety of mysterious cases. Dark-haired Frank is the coolly logical member of the team, while his brother Joe, a fingerprint expert, is slightly more emotional. Together, with a mix of good detective work and an uncanny ability to uncover important clues, they track down missing people and bust smuggling operations, all while having a good time.
Like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew (Pamela Sue Martin, Dynasty) is also a teenage gumshoe, but she works as a part-time investigator for her father, River Heights attorney Carson Drew (Willian Schallert, Speedway). Nancy finds herself embroiled in a mystery wherever she goes, and often relies on her girlfriend George (Jean Rasey, The Hindenberg) and her beau, Ned Nickerson (George O'Hanlon, Jr., The Evil) for back-up. Still, Nancy can certainly handle things on her own if she needs too—she's a smart and determined detective who doesn't shy away from dangerous situations or crooked villains as she uncovers their nefarious plots.
When The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries originally aired on ABC, the show alternated between a Hardy Boys story the first week, and a Nancy Drew adventure the next (as well as a third show, The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, that aired every fifth week). Universal's DVD set collects all 14 episodes on two discs, one devoted to each show:
Disc One: The Hardy Boys Mysteries
• Mystery of the Haunted House
• The Mystery of Witches Hollow
• The Disappearing Floor
• The Flickering Torch Mystery
• The Mystery of the Flying Courier
• Wipe Out
• Mystery of the Jade Kwan Yin
Disc Two: The Nancy Drew Mysteries
• The Mystery of Pirates Cove
• The Mystery of the Diamond Triangle
• The Secret of the Whispering Walls
• A Haunting We Will Go
• Mystery of the Fallen Angels
• The Mystery of the Ghostwriter's Cruise
• Mystery of the Solid Gold Kicker
The only real mystery about the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew is why films and TV shows based on their best-selling books have never done well with audiences. Nancy Drew managed to appear in a series of barely related screwball films in the late 1930s, but aside from two serialized adventures on The Mickey Mouse Club and a passed-on 1967 pilot, Frank and Joe didn't get a regular gig until Filmation's short-lived 1969 animated series, which cast them as the core members of a mystery-solving teenage band. Doubtless inspired by the recent successes of Hanna-Barbera's Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and The Monkees, It was an interesting show, but hardly an exact adaptation.
By the late 1970s, the rights for the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Mysteries books fell into the camp of producer Glen A. Larson, who had had success with police procedurals like Quincy and McCloud, and would later achieve fame for Battlestar Galactica and Knight Rider. Although the show took liberties with the characters and plots, to most, Larson's show remains the definitive small screen version of the infamous teen sleuths. The shows often employed titles from real Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, but the plots were all new—occasionally written by Larson himself, and under the approval of the current Stratemeyer Syndicate heads. The result was an always interesting television series with good mysteries and familiar characters that was well-written, if not completely faithful to the beloved clothbound books.
The Hardy Boys themselves were updated for a late 1970s audience, but they did stay relatively true to Stratemeyer's original vision. Like in the books, Frank and Joe remain impossibly clean-cut and all-American, boasting a long list of skills and achievements including surfing, singing, and SCUBA diving, as well as being seasoned pilots and karate experts. No doubt partly attributable to Larson's focus on family entertainment, the brothers also have a tendency to come off as bland and one-dimensional, often engaging in some terribly corny chitchat and good-natured ribbing, but it also helps to keep the show consistent with the novels, which were often equally trite, in spite of their general sense of fun and adventure. Not surprisingly, the biggest change is that the brothers have been yanked out of the 1930s into the (then) present, and instead of cruising Bayport in Joe's red speedster, the Hardy Boys could now be seeing heading down to the disco club in their custom van with Ricky Nelson blasting on the stereo, as they keep in contact with their father through a CB radio. The only real casualties from the books are many of the peripheral characters, although the Hardy's chubby chum Chet Morton (Gary Springer, Jaws 2) pops up once or twice, and Callie (Lisa Eilbacher, The Amazing Spider-man), Frank's girlfriend from the books, is recast as Fenton's assistant to lend a hand in times of need.
The two separate halves of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries were specifically designed to be divided along gender lines, but in their three seasons, The Hardy Boys fared much better than Nancy Drew by appealing to both sexes. Despite occasionally convoluted plots in episodes like the bewildering "The Disappearing Floor," boys were drawn into the show with its healthy dollop of action and science-fiction flavor, while the star's teen idol good looks—especially Shaun Cassidy, the half-brother of David Cassidy, who was sending teenage girl's hearts aflutter on The Partridge Family—ensured a healthy female audience as well. Combining a more adult Scooby Doo-styled story with great chemistry between the actors, the show was able to deliver on these initial attractions, and offer just enough fisticuffs and car chases to help the viewer ignore the occasional reliance on gimmicks like projected holograms and phony ghosts.
What's most interesting about The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries is that Larson really tried to keep the tone of each show distinct. If Nancy wasn't quite as contemporary when it came to crime detection gadgets and music as the Hardys, then she epitomized the modern 1970s teen girl with an impressive wardrobe, an extremely strong personality, and a sympathetic, encouraging father. Nancy's stories were most often Gothic-style mysteries with melodramatic elements, and despite the fact they may not have been as popular with audiences, they're generally better written, with ingenious plots that are far better conceived than the more action-oriented Hardy Boys shows. Several of the Nancy Drew episodes from this season—specifically "A Haunting We Will Go" and "The Mystery of the Ghostwriter's Cruise" are completely traditional mystery stories with casts of potentially dastardly suspects from which Nancy must out her culprit.
Although the Hardy Boys episodes managed to stay enough in the same vein of the books to be considered a success, far more liberties taken with the Nancy Drew episodes, much to the chagrin of fans, who responded by tuning out. They were particularly disappointed by Nancy's boyfriend, Ned, who is far too nerdy and whiny, and the fact that Nancy's two best friends/accomplices in the books, Bess and George, were combined into one: the uncharacteristically long-haired George. Late in the first season, you can actually see some changes making their way into the show based on audience reaction. Ned mysteriously loses his glasses and appears more confident, while George gets a haircut and her previous androgyny is downplayed. But it was already too late—the following season, Jean Rasey and George O' Hanlon, Jr. found themselves out of a job, as the show format changed to weekly team-ups of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Dismayed and angered by the failure of her half of the show, Pamela Sue Martin left the series soon after and promptly posed for Playboy ("TV's Nancy Drew undraped!"). She was replaced by Janet Julian (King of New York), but it was to be the last season for Nancy, although Frank and Joe did manage a shaky third season on their own.
While there were few notable guests in The Hardy Boys episodes, including Ricky Nelson and Richard Kiel—Jaws from the James Bond films—the floundering Nancy Drew episodes were buoyed with considerably more star power, including Bob Crane, Mark Harmon, Jamie Lee Curtis, and even Howard Cosell. If the inclusion of Ricky Nelson in The Hardy Boys' "The Flickering Torch Mystery" makes you a little nauseous, then you might just cringe a little more when you discover this was the season that also launched Shaun Cassidy's abhorrent singing career. In "The Mystery of the Flying Courier," Cassidy (twice!) warbles his way through the innocuous "Da Doo Ron Ron," which actually landed him a short-lived record deal with Warner Brothers. The episode "Wipe Out" features several more cover songs by Cassidy: "Surfin' U.S.A.," "Fun, Fun, Fun," and perhaps most ironically, "That's Rock N' Roll." Interestingly, every time Cassidy takes the stage, the show employed a running gag where Frank would have to run out on a mystery-related mission and miss his performance—personally, I like to think of this as the writer and producer's comment on Cassidy's talent.
For a series that today mostly appeals for its sense of nostalgia and late 1970s era accoutrements, a few instances of dirt and scratches might add to the experience, but this is a little worse than I anticipated. The video quality is pretty soft, which is especially a problem in some barely decipherable night scenes, and each episode is quite grainy, with stock footage obviously faring badly. The soundtrack, presented in mono, lacks fidelity and is subject to hissing, but despite the show's awful theme (composed by Larson himself), music in the show is unobtrusive and kept to a minimum. Dialogue is always understandable, even when it goes out of sync with the video, which it does several times. No extras have been included, beyond a locker poster of Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy on the cover of perennial '70s teen rag Dynamite, which is kind of cool, but doesn't really cut it as a substitute for real supplemental features.
By the time that The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries debuted, Stratemeyer Syndicate had published 1,300 novels selling in excess of 500 million copies, but in the late 1970s, long after other Stratemeyer series like Tom Swift came crashing down to earth, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were competing with TV, radio, film, and video arcades, and their books were steadily losing popularity again. With ingenious casting and solid writing, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries boosted sales of the books, and left behind a trail of (mostly Hardy Boys) merchandising, including Halloween costumes, albums, puzzles, board games and even action figures to re-establish their place in the American pop culture landscape. The show also proved the characters still had clout with a young audience, and the Syndicate was able to regain control over the franchises from Grosset & Dunlap, who had been resting on their laurels for years. Both series were revitalized by new incarnations from Simon & Schuster, providing a template for other recent young adult fiction series like Sweet Valley High and Goosebumps. If Stratemeyer was indeed "the king of the juveniles," then surely Frank, Joe, and Nancy were his prince and princesses, and this TV show is the best filmed tribute to their unique empire.
If you were lit up by "The Sign of the Twisted Candles," flattened by "The Bungalow Mystery," pierced by "The Sign of the Crooked Arrow," or tickled by "The Yellow Feather Mystery," this belongs on your bookshelf beside the long row of blue and yellow clothbound spines. Not guilty!
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