A decent amount of media attention has been given to the Alex Rider book series by Anthony Horowitz. It has been adapted into a feature film as well as a video game, both of which have faced significant audience backlash. So, it’s only natural that the studios behind Alex Rider the television series have bet the farm on this one. There really cannot be any more do-overs. This show makes a sincere effort at introducing the novels to a digital and streaming hemisphere. And it is fairly better than its lacklustre ancestors, but overall, Alex Rider, on SonyLIV, bears the brunt of a poor and passable narrative.
Series creator Guy Burt and his script do make a conscious attempt at not pegging Alex Rider as the teenage equivalent of James Bond. We don’t see any fancy technology, flashy suits, or a silver-tongued playboy. The focus is on the titular character, Alex (a solid Otto Farrant), a British high-schooler. Right after his uncle, Ian Rider, dies, Alex realises that the former’s banker alias was a cover. He was a spy recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service, an agency that applies information the MI6 gathers — basically, code for spying around. Alex not only deals with the demise of his only guardian but also the fact that everything he knew about him was a lie. And of course, his life was going to go topsy-turvy — facing the battle between his grief and the new reality he will soon be plunged into.
However, they barely venture into Alex’s psyche. His response to Ian’s death was quite temporary and later, too taciturn — the kind you’d expect from a Bond or a Bourne. There is no struggle between denial and acceptance. And the transition they tried to go for — from a bicycling teenager to a recruited spy — is too smooth and sudden. You really have to suspend your disbelief to make this more palatable. Before any official training, Alex fights like a trained military officer, parkours like an amateur Jackie Chan, and has the aim of an alpha marksman. We are supposed to get only one thing out of these instances — he was born a spy.
Hence, the Intelligence Service hires him. His uncle was killed right after he discovered a clandestine school meant for troubled billionaire children. And to learn more about the murder and follow his uncle’s leads, Alex’s job is to infiltrate the school and do recon work. This is young adult fiction clubbed with spy action. Up until this point, the twists and turns are fairly predictable and expected. But seeing his high school life get upended by a spy agency is particularly interesting. This always allows for a fascinating blend of two, seemingly, incongruent characteristics — young age and wisdom. Alex is smart for a teenager but he is never shown as something more than that. His lifestyle and behaviour — clothes, hairdo, room, gait — reek of an eighteen-year-old. There is a much-needed distinction between maturity and experience — and the writers never confound one for the other.
As the story progresses, its momentum gradually fizzles out. The slow pace muzzles the racy narrative. Once Alex enters the school of elite brats, the storytelling shifts gears and at times, even takes a break. We are in that environment, the school, for several episodes. The static setting begins to take a toll — the story is blunted, and every minute of the episode feels much longer and fatiguing. It can perhaps be attributed to the lack of chemistry between the genre and the medium. Sustaining the thrills of a spy adventure for eight episodes, over forty minutes each, is impractical. It would jade even the most ardent fans of the sub-genre. On the other hand, a glacial narrative pace, just to build tension for the final few episodes, betrays the very essence of a spy who can effortlessly evade snow bikes using a sledge.
Alex Rider isn’t able to walk this tightrope. And at the same time, it suffers from the one-note characters. Dr Greif (Haluk Bilginer) and Eva Stellenbosch (Ana Ularu) are the hard-eyed, Hitler-supporting tyrants that run the school. Their job is to tame the wild children. They handpick their students — only after vetting them, their family, and their riches. However, their larger agenda behind this prison is considerably puny and incoherent. They are neither menacing nor intimidating. Alex’s friends, though, are the only redeeming characters. Kyra (Marli Siu), another cog in this institute, is warped but empathetic. She resembles Aubrey Plaza’s character, April, in Parks and Recreation, not just by looks, but by personality, too. And his other childhood buddy Tom (Brenock O’Connor), is the most realistic of them all — he is perpetually vulnerable and confused, but you nevertheless root for him.
The final three episodes are where the action lie — they are swift and dramatic. But the pay-offs, with their allure and shock factor, do not feel worth the long, initial wait. The writers try to cram in all the thrill, that was absent earlier, in these episodes. The action sequences in Alex’s original school, feel…juvenile, not the kind that would appeal to all age groups. They place a do-or-die fight scene amidst gossiping and squabbling high-schoolers. There is quite a lot at stake, but it doesn’t help that all of it’s around only hormonal children. And this would make for a more comprehensive conversation if the spoiler-boundary could be crossed. Towards the end, the cheap thrills aren’t able to outweigh the tedious build-up. There isn’t enough action to keep the series alive, and whenever there is, it feels out of place.