What Do Nancy Drew and ‘Anne of Green Gables’ Have to Offer the Age of Peak TV?

The spunky YA heroine of yore is poised to make a small-screen comeback in the age of Peak TV. Wednesday’s news that Breaking Bad scribe Moira Walley-Beckett is penning a new Anne of Green Gables series which will examine “timeless issues, including themes of identity, sexism, bullying, prejudice, and trusting one’s self” is particularly interesting given that Tuesday, the creator of a forthcoming Nancy Drew series featuring grown-up detective Nancy Drew made headlines by saying the actress playing Nancy wouldn’t be white. “We’re not casting color blind, we’re casting color conscious,” CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller told THR.

Two iconic characters with sunny auras and relatively straightforward histories are about to be reimagined in the context of today’s dark, morally ambiguous antiheroes (and, increasingly, antiheroines) whose stories Walley-Beckett is known for writing well.

It’s a sublime development for those of us who grew up on Anne and Nancy and Jo March instead of Katniss, Hermione, and Bella Swan. My version of ploughing through Twilight or Harry Potter (two series I then read in adolescence and early adulthood) was creating a bookshelf absolutely lined with Nancy Drew hardbacks, next to “New” Nancy Drew or Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys “Super Mysteries” paperbacks, as well as another shelf devoted to every single YA book Anne of Green Gables creator L.M. Montgomery ever wrote, including all eight Anne Shirley books. These bookshelves weren’t in the library or at school; no, that was too far away. I needed them within mere feet of my bed so I could go back and read them again and again and again. I don’t know how many times I revisited scenes of Nancy untying herself from some sort of kidnapping truss or Anne talking her way out of a “scrape” with a neighbor or schoolmate, but it often numbered in the dozens.

That quality of compulsive re-readability is what makes new TV adaptations of both series both inevitable and desirable. Yet although Nancy and Anne are enduring staples of the YA “Girl Canon,” they each have different dark dimensions that can be mined for quality 21st-century storytelling. Anne is an authentic literary creation, a product of her author’s singular vision, while Nancy is for the most part manufactured by a publisher, written under a collective pseudonym of Carolyn Keene and reimagined over and over again for new age groups and generations.

This contrast is evident in their stories: Redheaded Anne is spirited, eccentric, and cheerful despite trauma and neglect, but her history as an orphan and her occasional temper and bouts of fear do offer a template of darker themes to go with her bright, charming power to win over almost everyone around her. The series also slowly kills off all its older characters (and some younger ones) and devastates us by doing so, showing the effect of time and age on its heroine.

On the other hand, “Titian-blonde” Nancy is shrewd, lithe, observant, strong — and perfect. She never ages, at least not much. She is not haunted by demons the way the contemporary detective usually is. Her mother is dead, her father lurks in his study, but they are both essentially “out of the way” so that Nancy and her “tall, athletic” sidekick George and “short, plump” sidekick Bess can hobnob with their boyfriends, thwart sinister plots, and get kidnapped time and time again. The darkness in Nancy’s tale comes from the crimes she uncovers rather than her own life — although perhaps there’s some melancholy to be mined as the flip side of her sheer independence (and Anne’s too).

Casting Nancy Drew as woman of color is particularly brilliant, since her mass-market creation means she’s not particularly tethered to any specific heritage or background. She’s already been reimagined as a cellphone-toting teen of today; why not make her a young police detective, non-white ethnicity TBD, preternaturally smart and prone to sneaking off to sleuth on her own? I hope CBS is smart enough to go more in the Elementary direction and less in the Law & Order one for this series, focusing on Nancy’s skills rather than various gruesome and exploitative “cases.”

Poetic justice is at work in this casting too. It’s common knowledge that the original Nancy Drew books were so racist in their depictions of minor characters that subsequent editions were bowdlerized. (This is also true of The Bobbsey Twins and other such series). And again, the essential qualities that Nancy embodies are fairly generic, tied to no background or ethnicity. Although her image as a blonde girl climbing out of windows, spying and deducing things, might be shaken up by the casting (and will surely draw the ire of racist fans), the essence of her character, such as it is, would be untouched by the “color-conscious” casting. The truth is that even Anne, who seems to be a creature entirely wedded to her home surroundings on Prince Edward Island and her turn-of-the century time period, would work in any place where earth and land and beauty and eccentric residents are part of the setting. She was recently reimagined — successfully — as a Latina girl named Ana in Southern California, after all.

With both shows barely in development, we can’t speculate further as to exactly where the creators will take their material. But there’s plenty of room in both stories to keep the eternal spirit of these heroines alive while highlighting themes that appeal to today’s sophisticated audiences, and maybe even sending a new generation of young women back to those bookshelves for more.