“Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible. She had just delivered some legal papers for her father. “It was sweet of Dad to give me this car for my birthday,” she thought. “And it’s fun to help him in his work.”
Her father, Carson Drew, a well-known lawyer in their home town of River Heights, frequently discussed puzzling aspects of cases with his blond, blue-eyed daughter. Smiling, Nancy said to herself, “Dad depends on my intuition.”
An instant later she gasped in horror. From the lawn of a house just ahead of her a little girl about five years of age had darted into the roadway. A van, turning out of the driveway of the house, was barely fifty feet away from her.
As the driver vigorously sounded the horn in warning, the child became confused and ran directly in front of the van. Miraculously, the little girl managed to cross the road safely and pull herself up onto a low wall, which formed one side of a bridge.
But the next second, as the van sped away, the child lost her balance and toppled off the wall out of sight! “Oh my goodness!” Nancy cried out, slamming on her brakes.”
So who’s willing to bet that the driver of the van works for CBS or NBC? I’m personally betting both.
Jokes aside, yes, those were indeed the opening lines of the original Nancy Drew book, The Secret of the Old Clock. And I thought it would be fun to start this post with a joke, while reminding us of what it was that made us fall for this character in the first place, and to remember it when it comes to writing new stories featuring the famed girl detective.
Because unlike some people, I couldn’t bear to modify the text to the point that you barely know what it is anymore. And that is exactly what happened when screenwriting couple Tony Phelan and Joan Rater were given the reigns to make a new Nancy Drew TV series for CBS, in which the crimes they planned to commit against Nancy made that van look like nothing by comparison. In fact, the story was so bad that they had to try again at NBC. And unsurprisingly, that failed as well. Things became pretty uncertain until Ellen DeGeneres and Wendy Williams took matters into their own hands, and Warner Bros. saved us all.
But what exactly went down? What is the whole story of how Nancy Drew, a character with a shaky history of adaptations at best, got saved? I don’t know about you, but it’s time to pick up that magnifying glass and begin an investigation into Nancy Drew’s latest adaptation. On with the case!
The CBS Attempt
It began in October 2015. CBS announced their plans to make a new Nancy Drew television series, simply titled Drew. Phelan and Rater were announced as producing, and at first, it sounded promising. The two have a decent track record for their work in mostly adult television series, but it’s definitely not out of the realm of possibility for writers of adult entertainment to do work for projects focusing on younger demographics. It also seemed that they were trying to differentiate the show from previous Nancy Drew adaptations by shortening the name of the series to Drew, likely in an attempt to sound “cool” and taking advantage of the fact that everyone knows the character to the point that they would still know it’s a Nancy Drew show.
But then fans focused their magnifying glasses on that premise:
Now in her 30s, Nancy is a detective for the NYPD where she investigates and solves crimes using her uncanny observational skills, all while navigating the complexities of life in a modern world and grieving the death of her best friend…
And basically threw them at the walls, shattering the glass.
There are so many things wrong with this premise it’s not even funny. First off, this is a children’s book adaptation, right? Why is Nancy in her 30’s? A huge part of what makes the character so great is that Nancy is a kid. Okay, a teenager to be exact (Clue Crew series notwithstanding), but just because she is a teenager in most depictions, it doesn’t mean that Phelan and Rater should have had the sudden urge to go all out and make her an adult. Heck, with a lot of children’s book characters, the mere fact that they are children already makes their characters interesting because when they do actions that are typical of adults, it suddenly captures your interest compared to when an adult would do it because you expect an adult to do those things. With children, you’re always on your seat wondering how they are doing to do a certain action next. Nancy may be a teenager, but teenagers are in a sense children that are learning how to be adults. Any 30-year old woman can ride a car, or get approval from her father. Any 30-year old woman can win the respect of others, or not go to school. But a kid doing those things is a whole other story. It’s only four words, but they practically already kill half the premise.
Secondly, why is she working for the NYPD? The main setting of the series takes place in the fictional town of River Heights. You’re probably wondering, okay…it’s fiction, why not specify the location if it was never revealed? But it was revealed that River Heights is near the cities of Titusville and Chicago, which are in Illinois. If anything, it would make more sense if the Hardy Boys were connected to the NYPD in some way, as their stories take place in the city of Bayport on Barnet Bay, in Long Island. Okay, so if she’s an adult, then yes, why couldn’t she move to New York or take a flight every now and then to work at the NYPD? But again…she’s an adult…
Finally…poor Bess Marvin. The premise doesn’t say who died, and I’m now getting into other information that was revealed, but yes, Phelan and Rater indeed thought it was somehow a good idea to get rid of an integral character to Nancy Drew lore. Because beginning a supposed children’s book adaptation with death would keep the kids around, right? Not that you can’t explore the topic, but it just comes off so heavy-handed here. And I don’t even think I have to explain why removing a main character for your adaptation is an issue. You just can’t get rid of a character like that, because it instantly kills the chance to adapt just about every single story that the character appears in. And if you try to tell those stories without that character, you’re doing tons of work for nothing. Though that’s even assuming Phelan and Rater actually planned on adapting any of the stories. And given everything else they did with Drew, that seems pretty doubtful.
Actress Sarah Shahi was cast in the role of Nancy, and while she has a great reputation as an actress, her ethnicity doesn’t match that of the character. The reason given for this was that Nancy was written as “diverse”, and although they were open to any ethnicity, Nancy was definitely not going to be Caucasian. This has become a recent problem when it comes to approaching diversity in entertainment. For the most part, we have good intentions in how we want people of all races to be represented in the stories that we write. But it’s gotten out of hand to the point that some of us have conditioned ourselves into believing that Caucasian characters are a bad thing. In the pursuit of diversity, these people believe that they’re giving respect to all races, when they’re forgetting one particular race, and it gets some people upset. And I don’t think that this is what any of us want.
There were several other things wrong with the series, but I’m not going to get into all of them here. This definitely did not sound like the Phelan and Rater everyone knew though, and I’m sure they lost quite a bit of respect after that. Some were willing to give Drew a chance, but those people were few and far between. Nonetheless, Drew got so close to existing that a pilot was actually filmed in New York City in March 2016. And the only reason why a generation of girls are still completely sane right now is because of another TV pilot Phelan and Rater had written, which CBS greenlit over Drew in May of that year. The reason? Well, considering all the treatment Nancy was given with this series, it all begins to make sense:
Drew is not going forward at CBS but is being shopped to other outlets by CBS TV Studios. I hear the pilot tested well but skewed too female for CBS’ schedule. In the end of the day, I hear the network had no 8 PM or 9 PM slot available.
So it’s not like CBS even cared about the generations of women whose hearts have been touched by Nancy, anyway. Much like how fans threw their magnifying glasses, CBS was throwing stuff at the wall and see what stuck. They let writers do whatever they want, only to ultimately reject them if the show is too female-oriented because they don’t care about women. This does put into question if CBS would reject a similar premise for a Hardy Boys show, or any kind of male-oriented show, and ensure their status as a network in which male-focused properties go to the grave. Speaking of which, my mother, who is a huge MacGyver fan, briefly slipped into depression when she first watched CBS’s reboot, so…
Anyway, the pilot that CBS did greenlight eventually became a series called Doubt, which, funnily enough, got canceled in less than a year. Still, as quoted above, CBS threatened to make Drew exist by pitching the pilot to other networks to see if they would consider greenlighting it. And most of us crossed our fingers that the rest of TV would save themselves the trouble. Thankfully, they did. Even better, Shahi admitted in June of that year that the pilot was not her proudest project.
We did a pilot. It didn’t go. It didn’t go and I’m very happy it didn’t go. It was not good.
Drew officially became the third of rejected Nancy Drew shows that had similarly questionable character changes. The first was in 1957, titled Nancy Drew, Detective, and would have been based on the 1930’s films, which had too many character changes to count. The second was in 1989, titled Nancy Drew and Daughter, and the title says it all, even if it sounded marginally more interesting than Drew. Drew could’ve potentially broken this mold and finally be the ideal Nancy Drew show we all asked for, or at least for some, the first good adaptation in a while. But that’s how things went down, and everything was fine for a time. Disappointing, but fine.
And then Phelan and Rater tried again.
The NBC Attempt
We did a pilot and we tried to forget about it but we couldn’t; we loved the characters so much. But we knew that we had to come up with a different way to go about it.
That’s Phelan’s comments regarding his and his wife’s reworking of Drew. Admittedly, you have to hand it to them for their dedication and attempting to redeem themselves for their past mistakes. Unfortunately, their second attempt didn’t end up that much better. In October 2017, NBC was given this new Nancy Drew TV show pitch, which had the following premise:
When the author of the most famous female teen detective series is thrust into a real-life murder mystery, who does she turn to for help? Her two best friends from childhood, who were the inspiration for all those books, and the women who have a real ax to grind about the way their supposed best friend chose to portray them all those years ago.
It’s…interesting, but at the same time still pretty bad. To be fair, we’ll discuss the somewhat good parts about it first. I immediately thought of the Goosebumps movie when I first read this premise, though Carolyn Keene telling Nancy that she was a children’s book character that she wrote about and brought to life would be HEAPS more interesting. Actually, Nancy is the writer of her own books here, in which the stories are based on her adventures with George Fayne and Bess Marvin in childhood, who is alive this time. But Nancy wrote the events differently as they actually happened, making it look as if she was the star all of the stories. As a result, Nancy found fame but had a fallout with Bess and George, and they come to visit her to set things straight. This is what would set the stage for the rest of the series, in which the three would repair their friendship through the new mysteries they would solve together.
Okay…it’s all interesting yet questionable, but nothing Drew-level awful. Until it was revealed that they would be even older, in their 40’s or 50’s. Their 40’s or 50’s.
Apparently, Rater’s idea was that if they’re old instead of young, they would still have that you’re-just-a-kid-you-can’t-do-this factor, but how we apply that to the elderly. Though 40’s-50’s is not a real old age group, and while it’s interesting in a way, I don’t think it should be used in the context of Nancy Drew. Or any children’s book character.
Regardless, although it was never confirmed that this series was abandoned, Wikipedia is claiming that it was. (And they better be right.) Nonetheless, another announcement would make this whole series irrelevant.
And that’s when we were all saved.
The Warner Bros. Attempt! 😀
In April, it was announced that Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Kleeman and Chip Diggins will be producing a film adaptation of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase for Warner Bros., with Wendy Williams as executive producer. If successful, it will be the first installment in a new film series. Not only that, but the report also stated that Sophia Lillis was already cast in the role, a WAY better fit than Sarah Shahi. (They can even play with Nancy’s shorter hairstyles with Lillis’s hair). Sure, it’s worth raising eyebrows that they’re skipping The Secret of the Old Clock, but given that everything else already sounds so great, I’m willing to bet that there’s reason for it. Maybe it will be narratively connected to The Secret of the Old Clock, likely via flashback or a scene at the beginning of the film.
It was odd that until now, the big name women hadn’t tried to do anything about this travesty. After all, Nancy Drew has impacted a range of big names, from previous film actress Emma Roberts to media queen Oprah Winfrey to former First Lady Hillary Clinton to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. But hey, it’s better late than never. This also isn’t the first upcoming children’s book adaptation for Warner Bros. that DeGeneres is picking up; remember, she is also making the Green Eggs and Ham television series for Netflix. So it was pretty generous for DeGeneres to put this much on her plate.
Heck, I hadn’t grown up with the character personally, but even I am admittedly interested in how this is going to turn out. Like Shahi, Lillis has already proven herself as a great actress, and that, as well as the other names attached, are already shaping this up to have tons of potential. I wish the best of luck for the filmmakers that this becomes the Nancy Drew adaptation that Phelan and Rater’s efforts could have been, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this upcoming project.
Until this case continues to unfold, folks.