It’s been over 10 years since The Dangerous Book for Boys was published, and in 2018, the idea that such activities as building a treehouse should only be for boys is laughably outdated. The notion of adapting a non-fiction list of activities into a TV series, then, seems even more bizarre, But that’s precisely what Bryan Cranston and Greg Mottola do for Amazon’s latest family TV series.
Amazon’s original kids’ output is not something to be underrated, with Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, Annedroids and Just Add Magic just some of their impressive successes. The Dangerous Book for Boys marks out itself out from the pack from the off, creating a backstory behind the book’s creation: The Dangerous Book is a compendium of tips and instructions from a dad (Chris Diamantopoulous) to his sons (them specifically, rather than all sons everywhere), which they’re given after his death. It’s a bold move for a kids’ series, daring to tackle grief and loss head-on. Balancing that melancholic subject with more light-hearted material, though, proves a tricky feat that it doesn’t always pull off.
Our window onto this world is Wyatt (a charismatic Gabriel Bateman), youngest of the McKenna family, and also the calmest. His older siblings are Liam (Kyan Zielinski) and Dash (Drew Bowell), one brainy and pedantic, the other fast, loud and academically struggling. They’re all taken with the book, but Wyatt is most won over, and finds himself drifting off into daydream sequences that act out its passages, taking in everything from tropical islands and Einstein’s lab to space and the Wild West. These sequences are skilfully brought to life by directors Mottola and Luke Matheny, matching the show’s gorgeous opening credits for wonderful flights of imagination, cutting from everyday scenarios to hallucinations with a seamless wit and vivid colours.
It’s a shame, then, that the more tangible elements of the story are less successful. Back in the family home, we see widow Beth (Erinn Hayes) struggling to make ends meet, without much help from her mother, Tiffany (Swoosie Kurtz), or her late husband’s twin, Terry (also Diamantopoulous). The latter two are broad stereotypes included for comic relief: the ageing Tiffany spends her days reminding everyone what a raucous heyday she once had, back when she was the life of the rock ‘n’ roll party, while perpetual manchild Terry builds a tent indoors, eats cold leftover chicken wings and plays video games.
They’re at odds with Beth, who is portrayed by the excellent Erinn Hayes with a grounded melancholy, as she faces genuine financial pressures and has to hold the family together. She’s the cornerstone of the whole programme, bringing a gentle note of tragedy to build the series around. But the series often seems so keen to be a typical sitcom that it overshadows the nuances of its subject matter. “He was the Michelangelo of massage,” says Tiffany, when the family decide to have an impromptu group-share of memories. “Is that what you really wanted to say?” ask Beth. “No,” she admits. “Honestly, it’s not.”
It’s not an easy task, balancing both the real and the imaginary as well as the happy and the sad. While most chapters stretch a little too conspicuously to reach a feel-good climax and an upbeat message, there are flashes of promise in this six-part run that aim for something deeper. Some episodes are deftly constructed to tie together all the moving parts: one standout instalment involves Wyatt learning how to play poker, something that prompts an amusing and poignant exploration of why adults don’t always tell the truth. Another tries to examine the notion that Wyatt might need therapy to cope with his grief, but the show sadly doesn’t really return to the idea, instead preferring to look at more cliched set-ups, such as how to chat up a girl that he likes at school.
The result is an uneven, but likeable first season, which is best when riding the pages of fanciful thinking with childlike freedom. In its weaker moments, it risks undermining its attempts at sincere emotion by playing things safe and predictable, even while celebrating the unlimited power of creativity. Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for a kids’ TV series that isn’t afraid to embrace positive, life-affirming messages in the face of grief and other difficult topics, even when those messages are sometimes muddled or over-egged. “It’s like dad always said, you can’t succeed unless you’re willing to fail,” says Wyatt, at one point, which is precisely the kind of final sentence you expect from The Dangerous Book for Boys. It might be an unlikely candidate for a TV show, but by the end, you’ll actually wish it had a few more chapters to find its feet.
The Dangerous Book for Boys: Season 1 is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.