Why you should be watching Just Add Magic on Amazon Prime Video
Ivan Radford | On 24, Jan 2016
Already seen Season 1? Read our review of Season 2 here.
Lucifer. Black Sails. Mad Dogs. Amazon’s line-up of new TV shows has never been more packed – and that’s not including the second season of Mozart in the Jungle and Transparent, which were released just before Christmas. But with the VOD service’s adult offerings enjoying a lot of attention (Mozart won two Golden Globes this month), it’s easy to overlook the site’s growing library of kids’ TV. Just Add Magic, Amazon’s latest original show for littl’uns, certainly shouldn’t be.
Based on Cindy Callaghan’s young adult book of the same name, it sees three girls – Kelly (Olivia Sanabia), Darbie (Abby Donnelly) and Hannah (Aubrey K Miller) – discover an old recipe book belonging to Kelly’s grandma. When a “Shut-Em-Up Shortcake” causes her brother (Aiden Lovekamp) to lose his voice, though, they realise it’s more Merlin than Mary Berry.
The resulting mix could be all kinds of cringe, but writers Joanna Lewis and Kristine Songco (Fairly Odd Parents) beat the first episode’s ingredients together without trying too hard. That relaxed attitude helps the show to whisk up a neat balance between funny and serious, without either feeling forced.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no effort behind-the-scenes: after its commission for a full series, the makers of the show went back and tweaked the pilot, introducing additional footage (shot on handheld cameras) of Kelly and her grandma baking on video – something that not only makes the series feel more modern, but also adds a genuine emotional depth to their relationship, which, given her grandma’s near-catatonic state, could otherwise not have been possible. It helps that baking is something many kids do with their grandparents; in the wake of The Great British Bake Off, especially, it’s an activity that’s easy to relate with, not to mention believable.
Those kind of touches are all over the cookbook, as the writing team craft a deceptively complex recipe: in no time at all, we’ve discovered that Kelly’s grandma had a group of friends when she was younger all familiar with her spellbinding baking – from nearby neighbours to Mama P (an enjoyably menacing Amy Hill), the owner of the local cookery store. As Kelly tries to unearth her grandma’s secret past, the show moves from truth-serum poisoning to breaking and entering, weaving a narrative that could easily have been avoided in favour of a cake-of-the-week sitcom. It gives the show enough substance to appeal to adults as well as kids; the programme is aimed at viewers aged six to 11, but you’ll find yourself wanting to know what happens next too.
The cast play their parts brilliantly, with Olivia Sanabia making for a sympathetic lead and Aubrey K Miller a likeable supporting friend. It’s Abby Donnelly, though, who really impresses: her fast-talking Darbie is laugh-out-loud funny in every episode, racing between one-liners with irrepressible enthusiasm. One episode sees her learn Spanish and she seizes the chance to prattle away, before forgetting everything and looking confused. Even when the plots (which range from a brainy bolognese to a healing tart) don’t call for it, she’s hilarious.
“Come on, Hannah. How often do we get to cook magic spells?” she argues at one point. “Lately?” comes the weary reply. “All the time.”
There’s an intelligent streak to the show’s ability not to take itself seriously (one of the executive producers is Andrew Orenstein of Malcolm in the Middle fame); one episode bravely points out that Hannah and Darbie wouldn’t be friends in real life anyway, to both funny and moving effect, while another sees Kelly’s mum (Catia Ojeda, her comic timing turned up to 11) unable to lie, walking around insulting everyone she meets.
That wit allows Just Add Magic to be sweet, folding in sincere lessons about friendship, honesty and teamwork, but never sickly. Sprinkle in a compelling mystery and a complete lack of condescension and you have a charming little treat that viewers of all ages can savour.
Just Add Magic Season 1 to 3 is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of £5.99 monthly subscription.