The Dangerous Book for Boys is Dangerously Low-Stakes
Throughout the first season of Amazon Prime’s latest show, The Dangerous Book for Boys, a young boy gets trapped in his own imagination and frequently comes back to the real world disoriented. The underlying notion that this kid, suffering from grief after his father’s passing, might be “crazy” is investigated briefly and then becomes nothing more than a footnote. Instead, it’s clear from the six episodes released of The Dangerous Book for Boys that the show is more concerned with having a light-hearted stab at tackling grief than dealing with its own complex issues that arise.
Co-created by Greg Mottola and Bryan Cranston, the show features a family of four dealing with the loss of their inventor father/husband, Patrick (Chris Diamantopoulos). He leaves behind three sons and a wife: Wyatt (Gabriel Bateman), Dash (Drew Powell), Liam (Kyan Zielinski), and Beth (Erinn Hayes). While Beth struggles to help the family move forward while raising her children, she reluctantly welcomes both Patrick’s mother, Tiffany (Swoosie Kurtz), and his twin brother Terry (played by Diamantopoulos as well) into the household. Things get slightly more interesting when Beth gives her three sons the titular book which was written by their father and meant to guide the kids through adolescence and into manhood.
Of course, it only becomes slightly more interesting since only Wyatt gravitates towards his father’s gift, leading to frequent daydreaming as he goes on adventures with his father. Each episode features a specific chapter from the book, usually centered around the episode’s themes and main narrative arc. For example, Wyatt learns about poker and being able to tell when people are lying and that same episode focuses on why people lie or tell the truth. An episode like that works and accounts for everything the show has introduced. But there aren’t many episodes so intricately laid out and that strike a balanced tone. Often the show’s focus on its child protagonist is at odds with the adult world he is being groomed to inhabit.
What remains most interesting about The Dangerous Book for Boys is its approach to adulthood from the eyes of a boy grieving the loss of a father figure. He dives into this book to be with his father but because he also seeks guidance that he feels cannot be provided elsewhere. Many times though, I wondered if the choice to focus on Wyatt was the smart decision when a more-than-capable actress like Erinn Hayes is playing a Mom that is struggling with far deeper issues. While the show attempts to be nuanced by showing everyone’s own ways of dealing with grief, any hardship is pushed to the side for the greater compassion. Each episode concludes with a happy ending, which would not be so bad if the show didn’t seem like it was obligated to confront darker issues only to ditch them when the lightness of everything is threatened.
Tonally, I was never really able to figure out the audience for The Dangerous Book for Boys. It heads into lands of whimsy when Wyatt enters into his daydreams with his father, but then you have an entire episode about Beth struggling to keep her sanity as her family keeps on keeping on as if nothing has happened. Everyone hides their grief, but only a brief moment or two from each character shows that they are affected at all – with the exception of Beth and Wyatt who seem to be heading down a dark, dark path throughout the season. But that darkness is forgotten when the show decides to make a joke (that is usually really bad and cheesy). It feels like it wants to give life lessons, but is at odds with the fact that this family needs to be happy.
Hayes and Bateman tend to carry the show as its protagonists, while everyone else does just fine in their bit roles. Which isn’t a sleight against them more so than it is a sleight against the writing. Ultimately, everything falls apart because the scripts for each episode seem to have two opposing mindsets on what tone they want to strike. An episode says “It’s okay to be a little crazy” because a kid imagines his Dad saying it to him. Meanwhile, Beth worries her son is losing his mind and after a meeting with a psychologist, Wyatt never meets with her again because that would mean taking the word of a professional over the word of his imagination. And so the show continues rolling without addressing a large issue that continues propping up but only as a way of having Wyatt daydream fantastical situations.
Largely inconsequential, The Dangerous Book for Boys feels like a show that wants to keep on going and has a clear idea of how each episode should be structured. What is most bothersome is that occasionally something really interesting props up that seems worth exploring, but there appears to only be a shallow interest in those topics by the writers. The family dynamic is charming, even if it doesn’t really stand out, and Wyatt truly is an interesting subject by the end of the season. How he wrestles with the adult issues that his mother faces every day is compelling. What Wyatt gets out of The Dangerous Book for Boys is far more interesting though, than the disappointment that viewers will have.