You don’t have to have watched The CW’s “Nancy Drew” to watch “Tom Swift,” the network’s new series that is, in the most technical terms, a spinoff. Though Tom (played by Tian Richards) first appeared on the second season of “Nancy Drew,” the show bearing his name has little to do with it, which is for the best. There’s no real need to complicate things even further for Tom, who goes through so much in the pilot episode that there’s barely room for nuance beyond the basics.
The series’ rush to establish every moving piece begins immediately, with a voiceover that wastes no time illustrating the Swifts’ place in this world. “We’re not nerds; we’re Black nerds,” says Tom. “Oh, and billionaires.” Also, they’re “not the Obamas,” and “not ballers,” but inventors who are about to go to Saturn. That this voiceover never returns isn’t the greatest sin a show’s ever committed. But given how “Tom Swift” spends its subsequent few minutes establishing all those attributes all over again, this blunt opening’s still a signal of how little the show trusts either itself or its audience to glean its fundamentals going forward. Written by Melinda Tsu Taylor, Noga Landau, and Cameron Johnson, the first episode brimming over with triple underlined moments like this that only serve to show the strain of the script working overtime to outline as much as possible in 42 minutes or less.
The only thing Tom doesn’t tell us in that voiceover, really, is that he’s gay — a fact that undermines his credibility as a scientist and leader for his stern father (Christopher B. Duncan), whether he’ll admit it or not. But it also sets Tom Swift apart, both in his world and ours. As played with slick charm by Richards, Tom is a Black, gay, brilliant inventor whose tendency to declare himself the center of everyone’s universe belies his deep need to be loved, trusted, and accepted. When the show leans into this more personal conflict, thus allowing Richards to deepen his performance and character, it works.
Outside its flawed hero, though, “Tom Swift” suffers from a surprising lack of imagination given all the ostensibly impressive innovation at the heart of the Swift empire. Too many of the actual inventions get lost in made-up jargon, while attempts at conveying Tom’s untouchable cool — him bragging about a Complex video about his shoes, him telling his best friend Zenzi (“Riverdale” alum Ashleigh Murray) that she’s “watched too many Hamlet TikToks”(?) — end up feeling very, “how do you do, fellow kids.” An unfortunate combination of flat direction and acting keep most characters from feeling half as three-dimensional as Tom; the only other one that pops off the screen at all is his Siri-esque AI helper, voiced by the ever-charismatic Levar Burton. And try though the set and production design do to hide the show’s apparently scant budget, it’s ultimately hard to buy the Swifts’ incredible fortune and technological advances with so many seams showing.
The major caveat here is that with only one episode to go on, it’s hard to say definitively whether or not “Tom Swift” has enough gas in the tank to fuel an entire series. So while this initial pitch might be unconvincing, its deserves a chance to recover from its shaky launch.
“Tom Swift” premieres Tuesday, May 31 at 9 pm on The CW.