From creators Dara Resnik and Dana Fox, and directed in part by Jon M. Chu, Apple TV Plus’ earnest series further mythologizes the compelling true story of Hilde Lysiak, a young reporter who broke a local murder case when she was 9 years old.
In “Home Before Dark,” Hilde (played by “The Florida Project” breakout Brooklynn Prince) isn’t just investigating a murder, but digging into a long-dormant kidnapping case that’s haunted her jaded father, Matt (Jim Sturgess), since he was a child witnessing it firsthand. In terms of what Apple TV Plus already offers just a few months after launch, “Home Before Dark” (quite by accident) feels like a feel-good mashup of “Truth Be Told,” Nichelle Tramble’s scripted take on the true crime investigative podcast phenomenon, and Apple’s gung-ho update of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 whodunit series “Amazing Stories.” And if that combination sounds a bit confusing … well, that’s probably because it is.
The show’s Hilde is a preternaturally smart kid whose devotion to the truth and memorizing “All the President’s Men” is a constant source of pride and anxiety for her dad, harried mother (Abby Miller) and eternally embarrassed teen sister (Kylie Rogers). She quickly finds a collection of plucky friends to help her track down clues, from similarly ambitious kids at school to kindly adults who admire her spark, even when her unrelenting curiosity gets in their way (which is, as is the fashion with sharp and meddling kids, a frequent occurrence). Meanwhile, Matt reluctantly faces down the unresolved specters of his own past, trying to get a grip on the cataclysmic turn of events that ended with one of his friends (played with solemn gravity in the present by Michael Greyeyes) going to jail for life, seemingly thanks to the town’s openly crooked sheriff (Louis Herthum) and his cowardly son (Michael Weston).
As Hilde uncovers more and more rot at the core of the case, the tone of “Home Before Dark” deliberately swings from that of a family drama to an effervescent tween adventure and back again. Whenever Hilde’s on-screen, the show is a gumshoe adventure, sometimes even with lovely animated interludes to explain backstory, or Hilde closing her eyes to remember a clue in her apparently photographic memory and applying Sherlock Holmes-style deduction. Whenever the spotlight is on Matt, it turns into a grittier tale of faded dreams, childhood trauma and corruption. It’s “The Goonies” by way of “Serial,” a no doubt attractive pitch that nonetheless has trouble establishing a steady voice of its own until deep into its first 10-episode season.
The Venn diagram of their plot lines overlap as Hilde tries to solve the mystery that Matt’s tried to forget his entire life, which sometimes works and sometimes just emphasizes how much their respective vibes otherwise clash. Still, “Home Before Dark” has a strong duo in Prince and Sturgess, who squeeze their every scene together for all the emotional juice it’s worth, especially when Hilde and Matt get to bond over their shared love of investigative journalism rather than Matt having to chide Hilde, again and again, for overstepping her bounds. Prince, as will be unsurprising for anyone who watched her anchor “The Florida Project” when she was barely 7, is especially good, giving Hilde a no-nonsense edge of flinty determination that keeps the character from becoming the flat, saccharine re-creation she easily could have been. In Prince’s tiny, extremely capable hands, Hilde is a hero worth rooting for, even when she feels more like a symbol of hashtag feminism than a person. She might be highly intelligent beyond her or most people’s years, but a 9-year-old who meets police resistance to her questions and smirks, “Nevertheless, I persisted,” is not one to be fully believed.
The narrative whiplash of “Home Before Dark,” paired with the fact that almost every episode is a solid hour long, makes it hard at first to understand exactly what kind of audience the show is hoping to find once the season drops all at once on April 3. (The series has already been renewed for a second season.) To the show’s credit, though, as Hilde gets closer to unraveling the nest of mysteries she stumbled upon, so, too, does the show get closer to nailing down its own voice and target audience. The people most likely to fall for “Home Before Dark” are those like Hilde and her mom and dad: precocious kids who would bristle at that description and their encouraging parents who buy them “The Future Is Female” pins (an actual “Home Before Dark” plot point, paired with Hilde questioning sources in a pink knit pussyhat).
It’s admirable and shrewd to make a series with the intent of entertaining kids who crave smarter entertainment and their perpetually exhausted parents who are sick to death of halfhearted cartoons. And Hilde — determined, savvy and completely unintimidated by the many adults who try to diminish her mission and drive — makes for a wonderfully compelling protagonist for those overlapping audiences to enjoy. The trouble with the way “Home Before Dark” splits the difference between trying to satisfy both demographics, however, is that the manner in which the twin mysteries of the present-day murder and the past kidnapping intertwine and unfold are a little too dark for kids yet far too simplistic for adults. Hopefully, after “Home Before Dark” finds its sea legs and Hilde comes into her own as a true blue reporter, the promising setup can find a better strategy in its second season for playing to its disparate target audiences with a bit more confidence.
“Home Before Dark” premieres Friday, April 3 on Apple TV Plus.