Dead Boy Detectives could find the committed fandom of Supernatural or even Buffy

Clarisse Loughrey’s Show of the Week column, published every Friday, spotlights a new show to watch or skip. This week: Given the chance, Dead Boy Detectives could become a new supernatural drama classic.

Netflix’s Dead Boy Detectives seems awfully familiar. It’s a case-of-the-week style supernatural drama that gets all twisted up in teenage concerns. It features love triangles and toxic exes, yet the participants are just as likely to be human as they are ghost, demon, or transmogrified raven. This was the bread-and-butter stuff of millennial childhood, thanks to the emotionally gripping, yet consistently weird, worlds of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Supernatural, and Roswell.

And, with its first series, Dead Boy Detectives suggests that it, too, could acquire that level of committed fandom. Its titular British shades click nicely—there’s Edwin Paine (George Rexstrew), the Edwardian schoolboy accidentally sacrificed to a demon, who successfully crawled out of the bowels of hell, and Charles Rowland (Jayden Revri), an eighties punk victimised by racist bullies. They’re fast friends who refuse to retire to the afterlife, and have instead taken it upon themselves to solve the cases no else can.

Their latest requires them to track down a living target, Crystal Palace (Kassius Nelson), an American medium whose memories were taken from her by an incubus who arrived in the form of a floppy-fringed indie boy. Her powers end up useful to them, and all three head to Port Townsend, Washington State, where they lodge with a goth butcher, Jenny (Briana Cuoco), and Niko (Yuyu Kitamura), a student from Osaka who’s out on her own after her father’s death.

Some characters are secretly in love with other characters, and the series pushes together and pulls apart these potential couples in order to wring maximum angst out of the situation. And it works nicely—never overwhelmed by the sprites, witches, or Thomas the Cat King (Lukas Gage), who’s like an (even more) sexed-up member of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. And there’s even enough room to, like Buffy did on occasion, tackle the harder, more intimate emotions. One episode, in which the boys investigate the psychic imprint of a family annihilation, makes room to deal sensitively with the lingering effect of childhood trauma.

But there’s only one problem with Dead Boy Detectives: as much as we can call it a successor to Buffy, Supernatural, or Charmed, it’s also merely the latest Netflix series to earn that description. Clearly, the streaming service is invested in finding a new flagship paranormal teen series, especially now that Stranger Things will soon cross the finishing line, yet it can’t seem to actually settle on one. There was Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which started as a spin-off to Riverdale, but swiftly established its own autumnal tone—only to then be cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the closest thing to a proper finale being a story arc in the sixth season of Riverdale.

More recently, there was Lockwood & Co, based on the popular book series by Jonathan Stroud, which featured its own duo of boy detectives, ghostbusters Anthony (Cameron Chapman) and George (Ali Hadji-Heshmati), and a girl, Lucy (Ruby Stokes), who can talk to spirits. It was nixed only a couple of months after its first season had dropped on the service. All of these shows were already adaptations of other, already successful properties (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was originally a comic series). They weren’t exactly monumental risks.

Yet, shows like this need time and faith so that audiences can build loyalty to their characters and universes. And it feels, often, as if streaming services are stuck chasing surer and surer bets, desperate for an instant hit. And so, here we have Dead Boy Detectives, who are actually DC Comics heroes who first made their television debut in Doom Patrol season three (portrayed then by Sebastian Croft and Ty Tennant), on Max, previously known as HBO Max.

There was talk of a spin-off series. Then, James Gunn and Peter Safran took over as the heads of the DCU, DC’s cinematic universe, and Doom Patrol happened to not fit their creative vision. It was cancelled, and The Dead Boy Detectives was set adrift—that is, until Netflix handily picked it up as a spin-off series to their own DC property, The Sandman, based on the Neil Gaiman comics.

It’s all a bit exhausting, as if we’ve reduced art to trading stocks, but it at least makes sense for the Dead Boy Detectives to be where it is, so that a couple of crucial Sandman characters can cameo. You just have to hope that Netflix actually lets it stick around long enough to make an impression.