Tapping into middle school anxieties, Percy Jackson and the Olympians combines Greek mythic fantasy with a familiar type of coming-of-age story. Our titular hero (played by the likable Walker Scobell) is a 12-year-old social outcast. Targeted by bullies and misunderstood by his teachers, he struggles with school due to dyslexia and ADHD, often distracted by daydreams. Or, as we soon discover, by supernatural visions. Things come to a head in Episode 1 when a teacher transforms into a winged monster and attacks him, blithely ignored by the crowds of witnesses nearby.
Understandably worried about seeing things that no one else can see, Percy goes to the one person who is always on his side: his mom (Virginia Kull). But her reaction is less than reassuring. Instead of calling a therapist, she reveals that Percy's absent father is actually a Greek god, and these "daydreams" represent Percy's supernatural inheritance. His half-blood status makes him a target, and — like so many children's fantasy tales before — it's time for him to find some magical mentors and embark on a quest.
In this case, that begins with him enrolling at a secret summer camp for the half-human offspring of Olympian gods. As an amusing nod to the promiscuity of Greek deities, there are enough of these kids to fill a cabin with tweenage progeny for each of the major players like Ares, Hermes, and Athena.
Adapted from the first of six Percy Jackson novels by Rick Riordan, this new Disney+ series arrives with high expectations. I haven't read the books myself, but I know enough to understand that they boast a devoted fanbase, and the previous film adaptations were not well-received. This time the author has more direct involvement with the creative process, collaborating with a pair of promising (if unexpected) showrunners: Jonathan E. Steinberg and Dan Shotz, known for gritty adult dramas like the Jeff Bridges spy thriller The Old Man and the historical pirate series Black Sails.
Percy Jackson falls squarely into the zone of children's fiction, however, framed around vintage story beats that may feel a little hackneyed to older viewers, but will satisfy newcomers to the genre.
It's worth remembering that while there's an overwhelming volume of fantasy TV out there, most of it isn't suitable for kids. This series is a canny choice for Disney: a beloved, family-friendly title with the kind of live-action budget and casting we typically see aimed at adults.And Riordan clearly knows his way around the 12-year-old psyche, extrapolating universal anxieties onto a classic Hero's Journey narrative. What if your academic troubles and social awkwardness weren't just a normal part of growing up? What if they mean you're destined for something bigger and more important? Like, say, a world-saving quest?
Even after being handed a magic sword and informed that he's a demigod, Percy's troubles are thoroughly relatable. Other kids still bully him. Teachers keep giving him useless and confusing advice. His mom no longer offers comforting solutions to his problems, and his absent dad refuses to answer the metaphorical phone. Stories like this hold eternal appeal because they take the chaotic stressors of childhood — the feelings of powerlessness, the conflicts with adults who refuse to understand your perspective — and weave them into an adventure where kids get more agency over their lives.
These introductory episodes are simple but enjoyable fare, featuring reels of exposition from mentor figures like Percy's teacher Chiron (a stern centaur played by Glynn Turman) and a sanitized interpretation of the boozy god Dionysus (Jason Mantzoukas, playing to type). We meet other demigod kids like the charismatic Luke (Charlie Bushnell) and the tough strategist Annabeth (Leah Sava Jeffries), although despite being surrounded by his alleged peers, Percy still doesn't fit in. More ominously, the camp counselors refuse to explain why his mysterious dad won't return to Earth and claim him — and they're clearly keeping other secrets too.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians is at its best when dealing with Percy's friendships and personal struggles, quickly establishing him as a funny and relatable protagonist. You can already see the groundwork for Percy, Annabeth, and Percy's BFF Grover (Aryan Simhadri) to become a tight-knit team as their adventures progress.
Unfortunately, the show's fantasy worldbuilding is not quite as interesting. We're treated to a string of boilerplate introductions for various gods and monsters (think American Gods, but PG-rated), in a setting that just doesn't elicit the same sense of wonder as something likeNarnia or Harry Potter or Avatar: The Last Airbender. That's due in part to the rather workmanlike visual storytelling and production values, including the common problem of bad lighting during dark scenes.
Although Disney has money to spend on CGI minotaurs and LED soundstages, Percy Jackson looks very similar to a slew of other urban fantasy shows on Netflix and elsewhere. It doesn't make an effort to drum up memorable locations or create mystique around its mythological world. Maybe things will get deeper in later episodes, once the initial scene-setting is out of the way. At any rate, Percy Jackson and the Olympians gets off to a fun and well-paced start, but it's a rather generic example of the coming-of-age fantasy formula.
Premieres: First two episodes premiere Wednesday, Dec. 20, followed by weekly episodes.
Who's in it: Walker Scobell, Leah Sava Jeffries, Aryan Simhadri, Virginia Kull, Megan Mullally
Who's behind it: Rick Riordan (author and co-writer), Jonathan E. Steinberg and Dan Shotz (showrunners), James Bobin (director)
For fans of: The Percy Jackson books, Harry Potter, the movie Holes
How many episodes we watched: 4 of 8